Revisit Catch-22 in 2020

By © Jane Freebury

Odds are that someone somewhere has already come up with a phrase to nail the international health emergency that we are living through right now.

A pernicious little virus has caught us in a trap with a catch-22 all its own. The film Catch-22, 50 years old this year, resonates with a time when contradictory choices seem necessary.

‘A catch-22 situation’ derives, of course, from the impossibly circular and wonderfully entertaining Joseph Heller novel of 1961, on which the film is based. It is a great read from beginning to end, even though the story starts in the middle.

It charts the dilemma of Captain Yossarian (Alan Arkin) who has been posted to a Mediterranean island during the last months of World War II. He is desperate to get out of the bombing missions he is being sent on into France and Italy.

Alongside him, new recruits, younger than ever, are getting killed on pointless missions. Sometimes they are killed before they even begin their tour of duty. What is the sense in that? It’s a fair question.

Milo Minderbinder (Jon Voight) and Chaplain Tappman (Anthony Perkins)

The film’s key scene where Doc Daneeka (Jack Gilford), explains to the squadron captain that claiming he is crazy to be released from duty would cut no ice, is as fresh as ever. Because of bureaucratic regulations, there is no way for Yossarian out of the conundrum he finds himself in.

Director Mike Nichols had a dream cast besides Arkin to work with. Orson Welles was on board in a small role as a pompous general. Jon Voight is unforgettable as motormouth Milo Minderbinder, the profiteering mess officer, and Anthony Perkins, the creepy Norman Bates from Psycho cast against type, is the chaplain.

Art Garfunkel appears in his first film role as Nately, a good natured 19-year-old. A conversation on nationalism that he has with an old man feels like it could have been written today as the film gives full measure to the book’s prophetic words. They hang in the air, full with irony. The film’s screenplay was written by Buck Henry (The Graduate).

For its time, Catch-22 was very expensive to make but the studio had so much faith in its director, Nichols, who had just had huge success with The Graduate and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Cinematography by David Watkins and editing by Sam O’Steen are top class, but Catch-22 flouts a convention or two. It is like a series of disconnected, absurd incidents, strung together. The scenes are gems in themselves that accrete over time so that this dark, anti-war satire eventually makes sense.

From the moment Catch-22 begins the experience borders on the surreal. Dawn approaches with scattered bird song, and then the spell ends violently as a squad of B-25 bombers roar across the frame. The bombers were the very thing according to the production history.

Unfortunately for Mike Nichols he was beaten to the post. Robert Altman’s uproarious, frenetic anti-war satire M.A.S.H. came out in January 1970 and enjoyed huge success at the box office just months before Catch-22 opened the same year.

What a coincidence. You might think that both rode high on the anti-war sentiment of the times as the Vietnam War trundled on, but no, Catch-22 tanked at the box office.

Despite the no-expense-spared budget, audiences in 1970 may have got bored with the elliptical story-telling in Catch-22. Or by the time they’d seen  M.A.S.H. they may have felt that, as far as anti-war movies went, they’d seen it all. Yet both films are so very different.

It could be that for many people today the films Catch-22  and M.A.S.H. have merged into one long, indistinguishable anti-war epic.

When the book Catch 22 was published in 1961 it captured the futility and absurdity of war. Which war was that, exactly?

Joseph Heller had begun writing his landmark novel sometime in 1953 when the Korean War was settled, but he had actually set his story in the last months of World War II. When the film of the book appeared in 1970, it was taken up by the Vietnam War generation.

Slowly, over time however, Catch-22 has managed to catch up with M.A.S.H. in the critical stakes. A television series co-produced by George Clooney came out last year, but Mike Nichols’ film is better than it, and a cut above M.A.S.H.

First published in the Canberra Times on 19 April 2020, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

*Featured image:  Alan Arkin and Art Garfunkel in Catch-22 (1970) Courtesy: Paramount Pictures

Ned Kelly

Ned Kelly (Tony Richardson, 1970)

Streaming on Stan.

By © Jane Freebury

Every now and then, our most popular folk hero is taken out of storage, dusted down and given new clothes. This year saw the release of Justin Kurzel’s The True History of the Kelly Gang, and it marks the 50th anniversary of Tony Richardson’s Ned Kelly with rock legend Mick Jagger in the lead.

Intriguing. While his story in other media has been well received, the Ned Kelly films have struggled

Both of these titles are currently streaming on STAN, and are very different takes on a young bushranger of Irish stock who was either a class warrior and proto-republican, or a lowly horse thief. You can take your pick.

Many interpretations have tended to have a bet both ways. Hardly a homage, Peter Carey’s wonderful, prize-winning book that Kurzel’s film is inspired by was wildly successful, and artist Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly series from the 1940s have become canonical works.

It is intriguing that, while stories of Ned in other media have been very well received, the Ned Kelly films have struggled. Since Jagger did his turn in 1970, the part of Kelly has been played by two fine actors. In 2003, Heath Ledger had the main role in Ned Kelly, directed by Gregor Jordan. George MacKay has played him in Kurzel’s recent film.

The film medium is, unfortunately, demanding and exacting in its particular way, and from the first moments in the Tony Richardson film, there is obviously something missing. It opens on Kelly in prison, on his way to the gallows where he utters his famous parting words, ‘Such is life’.

It isn’t just the moustache that’s missing, it’s physical presence. In his chinstrap beard, Jagger looks more like a member of the Amish than the swashbuckling outlaw whose manly image in full beard we are accustomed to.

Is this the Rolling Stones frontman? The film didn’t reflect well on his day job either

More than this, it’s his flat, uncertain voice trying to project and the wavering accent. He tries whatever he can manage – Cockney, Australian, Irish – and the pub singalong featuring The Wild Colonial Boy is only faintly rousing. Is this the charismatic outlaw, a man of the people, who we are invited to celebrate?

Is this the Rolling Stones’ frontman? The film didn’t reflect well on his day job either.

Any Ned Kelly films needs a robust central performance. The lack of a compelling central presence in Kurzel’s The True History of the Kelly Gang is a weakness there to, and significantly subverted by having the male actors so frequently crossdress.

Serious shortcomings aside, the script, which was the work of director Richardson and local Kelly expert, the late Ian Jones, is packed with characters among the downtrodden Irish, and with incident. The sense of community is strong, especially compared with the bleak Kurzel version of a family isolated and vulnerable.

When there are more characters in the frame, and attention is not directed solely at Mick Jagger’s Ned, the film comes alive with the jauntiness that Richardson could do so well. The rollicking tone that dominated one of his most famous films, Tom Jones, is in the ascendant. If I turn a blind eye to the lead actor, this is what the film does best.

The ravishing location shots by cinematographer, Gerry Fisher, are another plus. They capture the individual character of the Australian bush and rural landscapes in their many moods. As many Canberrans know, Ned Kelly of 1970 was made in and around Braidwood in the Southern Tablelands.

Just a hint of homoerotica is implied when Kelly accepts a drink from Constable Fitzpatrick (the late Martyn Sanderson) at the pub. I also recall a brief scene of a man in a dress riding a horse, but nothing like the liberties taken in Kurzel’s film.

Mick Jagger has flirted with many things, including an acting career. He beat Ian McKellen for the part of Kelly but this performance probably buried any further ambition to act in feature films.

In 1970 the Australian film industry was on the cusp of a revival that would see classics later in the decade like Picnic at Hanging Rock, My Brilliant Career and Mad Max. Bilateral government support for subsidising a local industry was nearly, but not quite, there.

Richardson’s Ned Kelly was a big budget international coproduction that swept into town and made off with generous Federal Government funding. For this and other reasons, it was not received well. On the up side, it did at least convince Australian filmmaker Michael Thornhill and his contemporaries that they could do a lot better.

First published in the Canberra Times on 5 April 2020. Also broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

*Featured image: Ned Kelly, 1946, from Ned Kelly Series by Sidney Nolan, courtesy National Gallery of Australia

Landmark Australian film Shine turns Twenty

Published in the Canberra Times 30 July 2016

Shine 2

 

© by Jane Freebury

When Geoffrey Rush was up for a best actor award at the Academy Awards in 1997 for his performance as a troubled concert pianist in Shine, the fellow nominees were daunting company, as they usually are.  There was Ralph Fiennes (a cartologist-adventurer in The English Patient), Billy Bob Thornton (a murderer with intellectual disability in Sling Blade), Tom Cruise (a slick sports agent in Jerry Maguire) and Woody Harrelson (pornography publisher in The People vs Larry Flynt). Movie acting establishment, every one of them.

Shine had received seven Oscar nominations in all and though The English Patient won best film that year, it was Shine that people everywhere took to their hearts.  For Rush, the rest is history.

It was a triumph for Australian cinema. A triumph for Rush certainly, and for the rest of the team who had the other Oscar nominations—production, direction, screenplay, editing, support performance, and composition. Nine BAFTA nominations and five Golden Globe nominations also went Shine’s way, and there were many other awards. A tribute to Australia’s filmmaking smarts? Absolutely, and as contemporary drama it showed people what could be made here, besides ocker comedies and colonial dramas. ‘It worked in every market it played in and took around $100 million at the box office worldwide,’ recalls Scott Hicks, the director, in our recent interview. ‘It formed a new beachhead for Australian film in the US…’, taking around $36 million. ‘In Australia it ran for more than a year.’ ‘Unthinkable, unheard of these days’, and to start with ‘it was a film nobody wanted to make’.

It is 20 years since Shine was released, through Ronin Films, Canberra. To mark this anniversary, the filmmakers are gathering for events due to take place at Arc Cinema at the National Film and Sound Archive. On 13 August, the team from Ronin will discuss the film’s innovative release into the Australian market, and there will be a screening followed by Q&A with Geoffrey Rush, producer Jane Scott, director Scott Hicks, and writer Jan Sardi. On the following day, David Helfgott will give a concert, playing the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No 3, in an arrangement for two pianos with UK pianist Rhodri Clarke. In 2017, Helfgott will be taking ‘Rach 3’ to Vienna, Istanbul and Berlin.

In the early 1990s, Hicks cast Rush for the role of Helfgott based on what he had seen of his work on stage. Rush was an untested screen presence, but a respected theatre actor and had only just been on screen with a couple of very small parts prior. When Rush had asked Hicks to say in just a single word what Shine was about, the director nominated ‘redemption’, and the actor was onboard.

Rush was in his mid-40s when Susan Sarandon handed the golden statuette at the Academies, there was nothing ‘overdue’ about it. Moreover, stage to screen is not a necessarily easy or natural transition. Although he was new to the screen, Rush took almost every award possible that year, including the Boston Society of Film Critics and Screen Actors Guild awards.

Watching Shine again twenty years on is a rare pleasure. As Hicks says, ‘It’s a story about a boy who never grew up. As David would say, “I never grew up, I grew down”’! Rush just leaps off that trampoline and through the screen with his exuberant performance. At the same time compelling in those quiet moments, that you may need to listen closely so you catch the wit and worldplay. ‘Every single word of was based on the way that David spoke,’ recalls Jan Sardi, the screenwriter.

Sardi must have been delighted to hear that his script was a great read, compared to other scripts that Rush received to read, that seemed to him put together like the ingredients for a recipe. Hicks had handed his original script, ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’, to screenwriter Sardi (who went on to make Mao’s Last Dancer), who spent 5-6 years working it. ‘It was very important to understand David as a young boy and the key relationship was obviously his father and those other expectations that were placed on him, which informed the journey that he took in his life.’

‘It’s all about structure,’ says Sardi. In a way, a film is like a poem, as it is not possible to include everything. ‘It was a case of building the story, giving the audience a sense of the journey they are on, and why they were watching it.’

It is surprising to realise that Geoffrey Rush is actually on screen for around half the running time of the 1.46-minute film, and yet his character is unforgettable. So commanding is his performance as the adult Helfgott, institutionalized for years until the opportunity arose for him to play piano again.

The world would see much more of Rush in the years to come, as the comic actor himself in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, as a reptilian royal fixer Walsingham in Elizabeth, as a jolly royal speech therapist in The King’s Speech and, totally over the top as Captain Hector Barbarossa throughout The Pirates of the Caribbean cycle. Over the years, Rush has never failed to return to the local film industry that nurtured him, or the Australian stage.

Shine 3Yet, Shine was a watershed moment for many involved. It launched the international career of the director Hicks (Snow Falling on Cedars, No Reservations) and actor Noah Taylor, who has carved something of a niche for himself in eccentric characters ever since. The performances by Taylor and Alex Rafalowicz of Helfgott as his much younger selves ought not be forgotten. As the adolescent Helfgott, Taylor provides a remarkable foundation for Rush to work with, although the young actor had no access to Helfgott as he was at that point in his life. Indeed, Taylor carries the character for most of the first half, from the point when he is identified as a musical prodigy at 14 to his breakdown in his 20s while a student at the Royal College of Music in London. In interview, Rush has said that people tell him about scenes they recall in Shine that he himself actually wasn’t in. ‘It was actually the other actor’, ‘a bit of an unsung hero’ in the film.

The actor Armin Mueller-Stahl was also an Oscar nominee in 1997 for his support role as David’s father, Peter. The characterization of Helfgott senior, a Holocaust survivor and from the film’s perspective, an overbearing and destructive presence in his son’s life, prompted refutations by other members of the Helfgott family.

Be that as it may, Shine is the astonishing story of a man brought to his knees by mental breakdown, but subsequently able to find his music again, and joy, expression and fulfilment in his later years, during his marriage to Gillian, an astrologer (played by Lynne Redgrave).

In some way, the struggle within David Helfgott seems to be represented by the contrasting moods and levels of difficulty in Mozart and Rachmaninoff, his music teacher’s choice versus what his father wanted him to play. The light and the dark. Was it difficult, given the sad and difficult places Helfgott travelled through during his life, to make Shine a life-affirming story? ‘In some ways the responsibility of all art is to give hope,’ says Sardi. For Hicks, ‘the whole point of the story was the light at the end of the tunnel. That’s the nature of drama really. To feel the power of the highs, you have to experience the lows.’

 

Published in the Canberra Times 30 July 2016

http://www.canberratimes.com.au/act-news/canberra-life/national-film-and-sound-archive-celebrates-20-years-since-the-release-of-shine-a-watershed-moment-for-australian-cinema-20160726-gqdzbt.html

Alliance Francaise French Film Festival 2016

Published in The Canberra Times on 27 February 2016, and in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald online.

http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/movies/french-film-festival-2016-vive-la-difference-20160223-gmycel.html

 

© Jane Freebury

The Measure of a ManA snippet of film that ran for under one minute was projected at a trendy cafe in Paris in 1895 and the rest is history. The film of workers leaving the Lumière factory in Lyon at the end of their shift was made with a portable technology that encouraged the razzmatazz of moving pictures to take hold across the world in Tunisia, Russia, Persia, India, Japan, Australia and elsewhere. Hollywood was getting going too, however France, where cinema as such was born, has always had something different to offer. Vive la différence.

In keeping with its ongoing role as something of a champion of things cultural today, France celebrates writers and artists by inviting them into its prestigious Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. Writers, artists and other creatives are invited to become members of the Order each year. The recipients of the award are not all French nor are they all from the older, more traditional arts. A large contingent of people in the film industry like Bollywood actor Shahrukh Khan, Taiwanese director Ang Lee, and actors Donald Sutherland, Meryl Streep and Cate Blanchett have received this honour.

The respected veteran critic David Stratton is a member and so is that rare Australian who has given the international blockbuster an Australian twang, director George Miller (the Mad Max and Happy Feet films). It has been announced that Miller will be president of the jury at Cannes International Film Festival this year.

Stratton and Miller are both patrons of the Alliance Francaise French Film Festival this year, which the organisers describe as the biggest French film festival after Cannes. It grows year by year. The percentage increase of seats filled nationally in 2015 on the previous year was more than 20%. In Canberra, it was 27%.

This year’s AFFFF, the 27th, opens across seven Australian cities from early March with a massive array of 42 films, and includes for the first time some choice samples of French television.

the-three-of-us 3

What have we got to choose from this year? The impact of world affairs offers itself as a theme at this year’s festival in a film like All Three of US, a comedy about a spirited Iranian family that leaves its turbulent homeland in the 1970s to begin life anew in suburban Paris. It is directed by Tehran-born, French stand-up comic Kheiron.

One of this year’s highlights is Dheepan, winner of the 2015 Palme d’Or at Cannes. A new film from the consistently masterful Jacques Audiard (A Prophet; Rust and Bone; Read My Lips) who has hit his stride in recent years directing his own screenplays. Never one to shy away from controversial themes, Audiard here explores the predicament of a former Tamil fighter re-building his life in France.

the-white-knights 3

The White Knights explores how, when an organisation tries rescuing young orphans from Africa, altruism can become tainted by corruption. Actor Vincent Lindon appears in this and also in The Measure of a Man, in the role for which he won the award for best actor at Cannes in 2015. In The Measure Lindon plays a decent family man, head of security at a supermarket, who also becomes enmeshed in moral compromise. This year ‘David’s picks’ of the festival include both these films with Lindon. Other picks are Courted, Microbe & Gasoline, and Taj Mahal.

In Taj Mahal an 18-year-old French expat in Mumbai with her parents is left alone watching DVDs at their hotel one evening when the terrorists attack. It is 2008. The experience is not so much the horror, mostly out of frame, so much as the terror and confusion as a young woman faced the nightmare alone.

Microbe & Gasoline, from Michel Gondry who made the unforgettable Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, is also in its way about adolescent search for meaning beyond family and school. A sweet on-road adventure.

Microbe and Gasoline 1

The search for a better moral compass also underpins The Brand New Testament from writer/director Jaco Van Dormael, the creator of that hit comedy of 1991, Toto the Hero. In his new film, God, who is apparently a grumpy, middle-aged man living in a shabby Brussels apartment, has to search for his 10-year-old daughter who has run away in search of six new Apostles.

Reminding us of the French New Wave filmmakers who shook things up some 60 years ago there is a special screening on closing night in Canberra of Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (Le Mepris) when its star the ‘sex kitten’ Brigitte Bardot was at her sultriest. Although there are some sensational shots of Bardot, you can expect Godard to be having a go at Hollywood and its commercial values.

Director Claude Lelouch, a contemporary of Godard though not a New Wave insider, returns with an elegant romance entitled Un plus une. Lelouch is irreversibly connected with one of the greatest screen romances ever, A Man and a Woman, and here his romantic couple, including male lead played by Jean Dujardin (The Artist) meet and fall in love in India.

It is romance gone wrong in Philippe Garrel’s new film, In the Shadow of Women, about a filmmaking couple of filmmakers who fall out of love and into affairs against the backdrop of the city they are shooting, Paris, a mighty monument of living history. It opened the Directors’ Fortnight at the Cannes International Film Festival last year.

It is never possible to have enough of Isabelle Huppert or Gerard Depardieu which means that Valley of Love is a double treat. In Guillaume Nicloux’s film they are on screen together as a couple reunited in Death Valley on a bizarre mission of discovery directed by their dead son. Like a number of films screening at the AFFFF, it was in competition for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes festival last year. Huppert also appears in Macadam Stories.

Juliette Binoche is in the line-up too, as a mother, awaiting or grieving her absent son when his girlfriend comes to visit. Set in Sicily, The Wait is an Italian-French coproduction. And Julie Delpy makes an appearance too, directing herself and popular comedic actor Danny Boon in her new film Lolo.

There is some intriguing critical opinion on Mon Roi, which I haven’t yet seen, from writer-director Maiwenn (Polisse) in which a woman hospitalised after a skiing accident is forced to reflect on her former husband the jerk. It has received the AFFFF critics’ award for 2016, but not everyone is a fan. This is definitely good enough reason in itself to go along and find out for yourself.

 

Alliance Francaise French Film Festival 2016 is screening until 29 March at Palace Cinema, New Acton, ACT.