Category Archives: Film

Carbon on the valves

Last night I encountered my Holy Grail – I watched a film I’ve been waiting over thirty years to see.

One evening when I was eleven years old, this same film was scheduled to show on BBC1 after the Nine O’Clock News. My brother, who would have been twenty at that point, saw it listed in the Birmingham Evening Mail. He told me that it was a very funny film and that I had to watch it.

My brother was much given to impassioned recommendations. He inherited some kind of secular evangelical gene that bypassed the rest of his siblings. Everyone in the family remembers those long years he spent trying to convert someone, anyone to Pink Floyd, to Brian Eno, to John Martyn – forcing whichever one of his four older sisters happened to be in the living room at the time to listen to a particular lyric or chord change, to just acknowledge the self-evident genius. His attempts were entirely unsuccessful, ending usually with the captive audience fleeing to their rooms, often with Nicholas following close on their heels continuing to outline especially fine and noteworthy elements of the recording as they firmly closed their doors on him.

I, however, as his one younger sibling, absorbed it all.  I would sit obediently and watch the films, read the books, eat the food and listen to the music which filled him with such wonder. Sometimes, try as I might, I could not share his enthusisasm (I never, I’m sorry to say, got into John Martyn) and even I at times found his critiques a little hyperbolic. (Eg. of a piece of trout cooked in newspaper: ‘This is the best thing you will ever taste in your life.’)

So by the time I was eleven I had developed something of an antenna for differentiating genuine, passionate recommendations from some of the more exaggerated, not to say optimistic, claims. The film though seemed definitely the former. Nicholas told me I would probably never see anything funnier and such was his conviction, I was inclined to believe him. We sat through the Nine O’Clock News in a state of great anticipation, but as the film was announced, my Dad who had not been party to the day long pre-screening buzz, expressed his doubt that a film shown after the news would be suitable viewing for me.

My brother and I reacted differently. My brother pleaded my case, lobbying for the film, insisting on its brilliance, its appropriacy and suitability. I on the other hand, whilst desperately keen to see it, had already developed that awful adolescent terror of sitting through any kind of ‘adult’ material with either of my parents in attendance. I would rather poke myself in the eye than endure an excrutiating few seconds of a ‘bedroom scene’ with my dad in the room. I would, it transpired, rather gather my things together and retire to bed missing perhaps the funniest film in the world and lie awake for the next hour and a half listening to my father and brother’s laughter filtering up through the floorboards.

I’ve often thought of the film since then. It never appeared again, to my knowledge on a tv schedule, it is not available on DVD, or on Netflix or anywhere I have ever tried whenever I have searched for it. No one I have ever asked has either seen or heard of it. It is a phantom.

Last week was my 43rd birthday and a few days afterwards I received a package from Spain. I didn’t recognise the handwriting on the jiffy bag and inside there was a DVD but no delivery note, or message, or clue of any sort. The film was evidently a Spanish edition of an American film. The title was Corazon Verde – which I recognised neither in the Spanish original or the English translation. The film starred Walter Matthau, which is always a good thing, and as my fondness for him is fairly well known, I thought perhaps this was a present from a friend in Barcelona. It wasn’t until I looked again at the cover that I saw tucked away at the bottom of the small print, the original US release title:

‘A New Leaf’.

My brother had tracked down the Holy Grail.

So last night, I sat down to watch ‘A New Leaf’ only thirty two years since I’d last attempted to do the same thing. It’s a wonderful film, funny but with beautifully restrained performances and a dry, understated script. It was written and directed by Elaine May and though she was reportedly very unhappy with the cuts made by the studio, it remains a small masterpiece.

My brother was right – there was nothing unsuitable for an eleven year old and my life could only have been richer to have experienced Walter Matthau calmly repeating ‘You’ve got your head through the arm hole’ while attempting to disentangle his hapless bride from her Grecian nighgown, a full thirty years before I finally did…but there’s something miraculous in finding something that could withstand such anticipation and vanquishing the tediously permanent adult state of disappointment.

Someone fetch a priest

Should you re-watch films that seemed great to you when you were 15? In my experience, this is usually a bad idea. I say 15, but it could be 18, or 21 or even 30 –pieces of art that make a big impression initially can sometimes disappoint on later viewing/reading/listening. But if you don’t check them out again years later, you might be recommending absolute rubbish to people. Some things of course – like ‘The Maltese Falcon’ get better. But others – it’s not just that they disappoint – it’s that they make you wonder who you were, what kind of a shallow fool you must have been. They make you worry that maybe you’re still a fool now. Maybe you’re clapping your hands, this very minute, like a wind-up chimp, at some piece of mediocre nonsense. It’s unsettling.

Anyway I’ve done it twice recently. The first was ‘Wings of Desire’ which I hadn’t seen since it first came out, but didn’t even doubt for a second that I would find it equally great. And it wasn’t that it was terrible. It was still beautiful, and still a great idea. But something about the writing. After about 45 minutes I couldn’t take any more. Maybe it had been a long day. Maybe I was tired. But it was just noise. Noise that wouldn’t stop until I ejected the DVD. But I did feel very bad about this. Later, at Pete’s insistence, I watched the film with the director’s commentary – and this I would definitely recommend: a) because you don’t hear the script (b) because you get to hear Peter Falk discussing his scenes and (c) because you discover the original ‘custard pie fight’ ending – which is well…remarkable.

The second occasion was Jean Cocteau’s ‘La Belle et La Bete’. Again – it wasn’t terrible. Just whereas when I was 15 I thought it was a marvellous work of art, now I saw it more as a source of high comedy. ‘La Bete’ in particular (who is played by Bungle who went on to achieve great fame in Rainbow) and his way of hissing ‘Belle’, or spitting ‘chaque soir’, is very entertaining. I’m too scared to watch ‘Orphee’ now – I don’t think I could bear the disappointment if it turned out to be less great than I remembered it.

The exciting possibility exists that maybe this works in reverse too, and films or books that you originally thought were abysmal would maybe be amazing given a second chance.

Werner’s last blues

Grizzly Man looks very good indeed. I had to watch a video entitled ‘Are you bear aware?’ before I was allowed to stay in Yosemite National Park (needless to say there was no similar awareness raising of the squirrel peril). It showed lots of bears committing car crime – smashing windows in a desperate search for Lion bars and cheese and onion crisps, I don’t think there was any joy riding though. It’s a well documented fact, but no animal in the annals of car crime will ever match the chimpanzees of the West Midlands Safari Park. Sadly they were all rounded up and shot when foot and mouth broke out – which certainly sends a message to the criminal underclass.

I once described Werner Herzog’s voice as my favourite sound (above even the melancholy chimes of distant ice-cream vans) – which of course sounds horribly pretentious, but something about his lugubrious vowel sounds which match exactly his lugubrious face gives me great joy. I’m sure anyone who heard him saying ‘That’s not an opponent’ about a plastic dustbin in Julien Donkey Boy, would agree.

Anyway nobody ever seems to ask ‘What’s your favourite documentary?’ which is a shame – because I have lots – so in the spirit of time-wasting…

Wings of Hope – Werner Herzog
My Best Fiend – Werner Herzog
Chronique d’un Ete – Jean Rouch
Ongka’s Big Moka – Disappearing World
One Day in September – Kevin Macdonald
Awake and in Pain – no idea who. It was about when the anaesthetic fails in surgery which I watched at a very impressionable age – I have no memory if it was any good, but the title stays with me almost as a motto