Thursday, December 28, 2023

Napoleon - For and Against

Ridley Scott, dir. Napoleon (2023)

Even bad Ridley Scott movies are generally worth seeing. As he himself has remarked, "I have an eye." There are definitely ravishing moments in Napoleon, as well as any number of nods to famous pieces of Napoleonic iconography.

Ridley Scott, dir. Napoleon (2023)

Most famously, of course, there's the above juxtaposition from the (alas, rather too short) Egyptian section of the movie, which echoes Jean-Léon Gérôme's classic late nineteenth century heroic painting:

Jean-Léon Gérôme: Bonaparte Before the Sphinx (1886)

Is it a bad film, though? The question is a complex one. Earlier this year I wrote a long blogpost about the (so-called) "Man of Destiny" on my bibliography blog.

Pieter Geyl: Napoleon: For and Against (1949)

I used there as my leit-motif there Dutch historian Pieter Geyl's classic analysis of Napoleonic historiography early and late. Written shortly after the Second World War, the inevitable comparison with a more recent charismatic dictator inevitably arose:
The case of the persecution of the Jews remains singular: for the rest we must be alive to the fact, when we compare them then and now, that although there is a difference in degree, there is none in principle.

Ridley Scott, dir. Napoleon (2023)

Recently I've been indulging myself by reading through English novelist Fanny Burney's letters and diaries, which cover the whole period of the Napoleonic wars - as well as their aftermath, the "White Terror" of the restored Bourbon regime.

Fanny was an almost grovellingly loyal admirer of the English Royal Family, whom she served as assistant Mistress of the Robes in the mid-1790s (interestingly, the period of George III's first madness). Subsequently she lived from almost ten years in France with her husband, Royalist general Alexandre d'Arblay, between 1802 and 1812.

Her testimony, then, while undoubtedly partisan, cannot be faulted for its quality of personal witness. Her defence of the systematic programme of executions which began immediately after Napoleon's final defeat at Waterloo, does, however, seem a little tone-deaf, to say the least:
Once restored to its rightful monarch, all foreign interference was at an end. Having been seated on the throne by the nation, and having never abdicated, though he had been chased by rebellion from his kingdom, [Louis XVIII] had never forfeited his privilege to judge which of his subjects were still included in his original amnesty, and which had incurred the penalty or chances of being tried by the laws of the land - and by them, not by royal decree, condemned or acquitted.
As Fanny's Victorian editor reminds us, this rather chilling passage was written à propos of a daring attempt by three Englishmen to smuggle a French diplomat, condemned to death by the Bourbons, out of jail:
His wife implored the king's mercy in vain, Lavalette was confined in the Conciergerie, and December 21, 1815, was the day fixed for his execution. The evening before that day his wife visited him in the prison. He exchanged clothes with her, and thus disguised, succeeded in making his escape. His safety was secured by three English gentlemen, one of whom, Sir Robert Wilson, conveyed Lavalette, in the disguise of an English officer, across the Belgian frontier. For this generous act the three Englishmen were tried in Paris, and sentenced, each, to three months' imprisonment.
It's as well to bear this in mind when condemning the undoubted brutality and cruelty of Napoleon's wars. It's not as if the realms and rulers he displaced were models of compassion and probity. The imposition of the Code Napoléon on so many conquered regions was literally the first glimpse many of their inhabitants had ever had of legal process and the rights of man.

No wonder Fanny Burney and her like were so anxious to restore a system which guaranteed the subordination of the many to the luxurious lifestyles of the few.

However, while there may be a good deal to say in defence of Napoleon himself, what about Ridley Scott's movie? I was reading Michael Sullivan's enticingly titled article "The 21 movies we hated in 2023" this morning: Napoleon clocks in at no. 15, with an explanatory quote from film critic Ann Hornaday:
The biggest flaw in Napoleon, it turns out, is the actor who plays him. It's difficult to understand why [Ridley] Scott would cast Joaquin Phoenix - one of the most subtle, recessive, almost fey actors working today - to play someone with such a commanding temperament.
There's something in that, I'm afraid. Phoenix was brilliant as the Joker, and as the evil emperor Commodus in Gladiator, but he lacks the epic intensity of a Russell Crowe or a Harrison Ford. He behaves more like a sleepwalker than a man of destiny: so childishly pleased by the adulation of the midshipmen on the British ship he ends up on at the end of the bio-pic that any remaining doubts he might be feeling over Waterloo seem quite submerged.

I would be interested to see the four-hour 'director's cut' we've been promised at some point in the future, but it's doubtful whether this central piece of miscasting can really be overcome no matter how conscientiously the rest of the action - and characterisation - is filled in.

All in all, Scott's film leaves one wishing that Stanley Kubrick had lived to complete his own big screen epic about the Emperor. The one thing I'm genuinely thankful for is that they didn't cast Adam Driver. He seems to star in every other film nowadays, and it's a relief that he must have been otherwise occupied at the time chasing dinosaurs in the singularly charmless 65 ...

Scott Beck & Bryan Woods, dir.: 65 (2023)

Saturday, October 21, 2023

100 Years of Darkness

Bill Direen: 100 Years of Darkness (2023)

Bill Direen's latest poetry collection includes poems about 100-odd films which have enthused him - or at any rate attracted his attention - over the years.

There are definitely some rhymes there with my own filmocopia (to coin a term) - though perhaps more with directors than specific films. I too am a Jan Švankmajer devotee; Fritz Lang, Lars von Trier, Jean Vigo: the landmarks are all there.

Here are a few quotes from his book (one for each of the above):
who lives in celluloid,
and is tired of witnessing suffering,
and of feeding off that
of which men are capable.

- 'Destiny'
[after Fritz Lang, Der müde Tod (1921)]

In memory of his murdered father
the filmaker raises a punkster flag
against dictator midgets on thrones
preening themselves in mirrors

- 'Zero for Conduct'
[after Jean Vigo, Zéro de Conduite (1933)]

The beginning is pain.
A professional slaps your rear faces.
A sailor suit dances a pretty dance.
Perseverance is your only name

- 'Jabberwocky'
[after Jan Švankmajer, Žvahlav aneb šatičky slaměného Huberta (1971)]

Shame, that happiness should exist
for you to debase.
Shame, that my great love must kill
what yours lacked greatness to save.

- 'Medea'
[after Lars von Trier, Medea (1988)]

I note, too, the presence of Alain Corneau's resplendent Tous le matins du monde (1991) and Paul Schrader's fascinating Mishima (1985), as well as such classics as Hitchcock's The Birds (1963), Fred Wilcocks' Forbidden Planet (1956) and Murnau's Nosferatu (1922).

As a kind of tribute to Direen's audacious project, rather than simply discussing his myriad choices - not all of which I'm familar with, in any case - I thought I might riposte with my own "top 100" movies, spread out chronologically over the past century of film.

You'll note, as you scroll down, that I've made up a few rules for myself:
  1. Each director gets one film each - or else I could have easily filled up the tally with the likes of Hitchcock, Kubrick, or John Ford without ever straying into more esoteric regions.
  2. They're arranged alphabetically, by director's surname, within each year, without worrying about exactly when they were released (since such things are staggered around the world, there doesn't seem much point in being too over-precise there).
  3. Nor have I entered into the - otherwise vital - question of who is the actual 'author' of a film? The director or the screenwriter? Or (for that matter) a combination of both, together with cinematographer, designer, composer, producer(s), etc.? I tend towards the last hypothesis myself, but it's probably a discussion for another day.
There's definitely something revealing about such exercises. I note in myself a weakness for big spectacle, unabashedly emotive plots, and pretty broad humour. There is - to put it mildly - a lack of subtlety in many of the selections below. But these are the films I watch again and again - often in preference to far more celebrated items in each director's filmography.

I decided early on that if you're not being honest you might as well not bother. I like Jimmy Stewart, whether he's playing straight or serious. Sue me. I'm not a fan of teen movies in general, but I do have a weakness for The Breakfast Club. I don't know why, but the fact remains. Maybe you had to be there. I love ghost stories, Sci-fi, and heroic war movies. All of the above are well represented here.

My Own Century of Cinema:

  1. 1910s
  2. 1920s
  3. 1930s
  4. 1940s
  5. 1950s
  6. 1960s
  7. 1970s
  8. 1980s
  9. 1990s
  10. 2000s
  11. 2010s
  12. 2020s

  1. D. W. Griffith, dir. Intolerance (1916)

  2. Robert Wiene, dir. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
  3. Abel Gance, dir. Napoléon (1927)
  4. Fritz Lang, dir. Metropolis (1927)

  5. James Whale, dir. Frankenstein (1931)
  6. Jean Renoir, dir. La Grande Illusion (1937)
  7. Alfred Hitchcock, dir. The Lady Vanishes (1938)
  8. Frank Capra, dir. Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
  9. Victor Fleming, dir. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
  10. John Ford, dir. Young Mr Lincoln (1939)

  11. Charlie Chaplin, dir. The Great Dictator (1940)
  12. Walt Disney, dir. Pinocchio (1940)
  13. Orson Welles, dir. Citizen Kane (1941)
  14. Sam Wood, dir. For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943)
  15. Sergei Eisenstein, dir. Ivan the Terrible (1944)
  16. Roberto Rossellini, dir. Rome, Open City (1945)
  17. John Huston, dir. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
  18. Carol Reed, dir. The Third Man (1949)

  19. Henry Koster, dir. Harvey (1950)
  20. Akira Kurosawa, dir. Rashomon (1950)
  21. Elia Kazan, dir. A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
  22. Billy Wilder, dir. Ace in the Hole (1951)
  23. Vittorio De Sica, dir. Umberto D. (1952)
  24. Henri-Georges Clouzot, dir. The Wages of Fear (1953)
  25. Cecil B. De Mille, dir. The Ten Commandments (1956)
  26. Alexander Mackendrick, dir. Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
  27. J. Lee Thompson, dir. Ice Cold in Alex (1958)

  28. John Sturges, dir. The Magnificent Seven (1960)
  29. David Lean, dir. Doctor Zhivago (1965)
  30. Michelangelo Antonioni, dir. Blow-Up (1966)
  31. Sergio Leone, dir. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
  32. Henry Hathaway, dir. True Grit (1969)

  33. Nicolas Roeg, dir. Walkabout (1971)
  34. Bob Fosse, dir. Cabaret (1972)
  35. Werner Herzog, dir. Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)
  36. Víctor Erice, dir. The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)
  37. Pier Paolo Pasolini, dir. Arabian Nights (1974)
  38. Roger Donaldson, dir. Sleeping Dogs (1977)
  39. Hal Ashby, dir. Being There (1979)
  40. Andrei Tarkovsky, dir. Stalker (1979)

  41. Stanley Kubrick, dir. The Shining (1980)
  42. Ridley Scott, dir. Blade Runner (1981)
  43. Paul Schrader, dir. Cat People (1982)
  44. Philip Kaufman, dir. The Right Stuff (1983)
  45. Miloš Forman, dir. Amadeus (1984)
  46. David Lynch, dir. Dune (1984)
  47. Peter Bogdanovich, dir. Mask (1985)
  48. John Hughes, dir. The Breakfast Club (1985)
  49. Peter Masterson, dir. The Trip to Bountiful (1985)
  50. Geoff Murphy, dir. The Quiet Earth (1985)
  51. Rob Reiner, dir. Stand by Me (1986)
  52. Bruce Robinson, dir. Withnail and I (1987)
  53. Terry Gilliam, dir. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)
  54. Jan Švankmajer, dir. Alice (1988)
  55. Denys Arcand, dir. Jesus of Montreal (1989)
  56. Peter Brook, dir. The Mahabharata (1989)
  57. Joe Dante, dir. The 'Burbs (1989)

  58. Bernardo Bertolucci, dir. The Sheltering Sky (1990)
  59. Anthony Minghella, dir. Truly, Madly, Deeply (1990)
  60. Bruce Beresford, dir. Black Robe (1991)
  61. Joel & Ethan Coen, dir. Barton Fink (1991)
  62. David Cronenberg, dir. Naked Lunch (1991)
  63. Lars von Trier, dir. Zentropa (1991)
  64. Francis Ford Coppola,, dir. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
  65. Clint Eastwood, dir. Unforgiven (1992)
  66. Harold Ramis, dir. Groundhog Day (1993)
  67. Tim Burton, dir. Ed Wood (1994)
  68. Mel Gibson, dir. Braveheart (1995)
  69. Christopher Hampton, dir. Carrington (1995)
  70. Ron Howard, dir. Apollo 13 (1995)
  71. James L. Brooks, dir. As Good as It Gets (1995)
  72. Atom Egoyan, dir. The Sweet Hereafter (1997)
  73. Charles Sturridge, dir. FairyTale: A True Story (1997)
  74. Terrence Malick, dir. The Thin Red Line (1998)

  75. Curtis Hanson, dir. Wonder Boys (2000)
  76. Wolfgang Petersen, dir. The Perfect Storm (2000)
  77. Alejandro Amenábar, dir. The Others (2001)
  78. Hayao Miyazaki, dir. Spirited Away (2001)
  79. Irwin Winkler, dir. Life as a House (2001)
  80. Spike Jonze, dir. Adaptation (2002)
  81. Phillip Noyce, dir. Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002)
  82. Mark Pellington, dir. The Mothman Prophecies (2002)
  83. Martin Scorsese, dir. Gangs of New York (2002)
  84. Greg Page, dir. The Locals (2003)
  85. Roland Emmerich, dir. The Day After Tomorrow (2004)
  86. Michel Gondry, dir. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
  87. Ken Burns, dir. Unforgivable Blackness (2005)
  88. Joss Whedon, dir. Serenity (2005)
  89. Christophe Gans, dir. Silent Hill (2006)
  90. Clayton Jacobson, dir. Kenny (2006)
  91. Joel Anderson, dir. Lake Mungo (2008)
  92. Jane Campion, dir. Bright Star (2009)
  93. Zack Snyder, dir. Watchmen (2009)

  94. Emilio Estevez, dir. The Way (2010)
  95. Debra Granik, dir. Winter’s Bone (2010)
  96. Steven Spielberg, dir. Lincoln (2012)
  97. Ben Stiller, dir. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)
  98. Doug Lyman, dir. Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

  99. Ryusuke Hamaguchi, dir. Drive My Car (2021)
  100. Christopher Nolan, dir. Oppenheimer (2023)

I note a strange preponderance of rabbits in the above: Harvey, the invisible six-foot rabbit, who befriends Elwood P. Dowd in the 1950 Jimmy Stewart film of the same name; that creepy white rabbit, with his stuffing leaking out, in Jan Švankmajer's 1988 version of Alice; above all, those heroic little girls setting off to make their way back home in Rabbit-Proof Fence ...

More to the point, there were quite a few films that didn't make the final cut. I would have loved to include one of the Marvel Avengers movies: Infinity War (2018) or Endgame (2019), perhaps. But much though I enjoyed them, it was hard to persuade myself that they were actually very good movies, despite a few intensely stirring setpieces: "Avengers - assemble!"

Gregory Jacobs's brilliant thriller Wind Chill (2007) should have been in there. So should Jean Vigo's classic L'Atalante (1934). So should Cy Enfield's Zulu (1964). I'd have also liked to have included a Sergei Bondarchuk film: perhaps Waterloo (1970) rather than the more self-consciously epic War and Peace.

And then there was the wonderful James Baldwin documentary below. Perhaps that could be my no 101, in fact. It certainly deserves it.

Raoul Peck, dir. I Am Not Your Negro (2016)

So thanks again for the wonderful idea, Bill. I can't claim to have interpreted it in quite the same way that you did, but I doubt if I would have taken the trouble if it hadn't been for your fascinating collection of poems.

Bill Direen: The Bloke with the Blue Guitar (2019)