Virtual Stoa readers attending the Tribeca Film Festival (I’m sure there are thousands) may have seen me last night in a documentary about students at Oxford who spend their time boxing. I’m told that I featured in one shot saying that one of my students “said I could go and watch him get his face smashed in, but it was short notice and I was busy… I usually am…”. Anyway, the film’s over here, and I’m told it’s being shown again some time.

Long-Legged Guitar-Pickin’ Man

Three of us enjoyed Walk the Line last night. Lots of problems with the biopic genre, or so it seems to me, but I thought Joaquin Phoenix was astonishingly good in the title role .

(Maybe more later.)

UPDATE [11.2.2006]: I don’t think I’ll add much more, except to point out to people that when Cash first auditioned at Sun records, the song that grabbed Sam Phillips’ attention wasn’t “Folsom Prison Blues” but the rather different, “Hey, Porter”, which was his first single (with “Cry, Cry, Cr” as the B-side, not the A-side, as the film suggests)..

Whatever Love Means

Anyone see the Charles-Camilla biopic last night? Was it any good? I’m assuming the answer is, “No, it wasn’t”, but since these things occasionally reach great heights of excellence, I thought it worth checking. (Though I forget whether it’s the film of Diana: Her True Story or of Princess in Love which is the real classic – the one where Prince Harry’s clearly American, etc. Probably the former. Yes, I think it must be.)

Films of the Year

We’re dealing with books quite happily below. Now’s your chance to tell me whether there’ve been any good films this year that I’ve missed, as I don’t really read the film review pages any more. I enjoyed March of the Penguins last night, and am quite glad that I am not a penguin, but I’ve made very few trips to the cinema in 2005, despite living just around the corner from the only half-way decent cinema in Oxford. Downfall was probably the pick of the (small) bunch, with a remarkable performance from the Swiss chap playing Hitler.


My brother Michael will be on Radio Three’s Night Waves tonight at 9.30pm talking about a Russian film that everyone’s talking about, apparently. Tune in, and help to treble the usual audience for late-night worthy talk-radio arts programming.

Overseas viewers — you can get it on the web for the next week or so.

He’s trying to persuade me to listen by telling me that the previous item will have something to do with Rousseau. I’m persuaded.

Holiday Viewing

I finally got around to seeing Clint Eastwood’s film, The Outlaw Josey Wales the other evening, and wasn’t terribly impressed. Partly, I think, I didn’t much like it because it was so heavily indebted to another film I don’t much like, John Ford’s The Searchers, as it piles on reference after reference and parallel after parallel, saving the most blatant for last, when the distinctive shapes of Monument Valley make an appearance in the background of one of the final shots. But I was interested enough to see if the internetweb had much to say about this kind of thing, and dug up this (solid but ungripping) 2003 essay on the subject by Robert C. Sickels, which kicks off with the remarkable claim that “what virtually every critic has failed to recognize is its [= TOJW‘s] undeniable relationship to John Ford’s The Searchers…” That can’t be true, can it? Film writers surely haven’t been that blinkered? Or is Sickels just exaggerating a bit to get his own essay off the ground? I know there are (i) film buffs and (ii) Western enthusiasts who read this page, so any information posted in the Comments will be cheerily digested.

Talk Like A Pirate

Seeing Dodgeball last night (fun film, fun film) reminded me to remind you all that 19 September is International Talk Like A Pirate Day, so get practicing.

I’m told that the advertising slogan for Dodgeball in the US is “Grab Life By The Ball”, and that the UK slogan adds the letter “S” to make the last word into “Balls”. This is entertaining, if true.

Those who want to practice T-ing like a P might want to ask themselves what letter comes before “S” in the alphabet, saying it loudly in a preposterous voice.

Beer: The Cure For Depression

Oxford’s Psychiatry Department is circulating this leaflet, left, around the university. Turns out that when you turn over the page you learn that beer isn’t really the cure for depression after all, and that it’s better to take antidepressants (and, perhaps, to follow some other therapies) than to booze heavily in response to feeling gloomy. Got that?

It seemed, however, a nice image to accompany a blogpost to report that Guy Maddin’s new film, The Saddest Music in the World is a fine, fine film — since this really is a film about how a particular kind of Canadian beer, brewed in Winnipeg, will help to lift North America out of the Depression (and a reminder of just how Depressing the United States must have been in the Prohibition era).

Oh yes, and it said in the glossy cinema programme in reasonably big letters that “While rejecting accusations that he’s a mere pasticheur, Maddin resurrects long-abandoned film forms, stirring into the mix with admirably straight-faced conviction German expressionist lighting, Soviet montage, “golden age” Hollywood melodramatics and Busby Berkeley’s more fetishistic choreography”. That’s an opinion from one Michael Brooke, writing in Sight and Sound, and a reminder that my brother is one of the world experts on the films of Guy Maddin, which must be quite a strange thing to be.

Only seen three of them myself, but very much want to see Careful if I ever get the chance.

Something Not At All Beautiful

One thing I share with Norm is a deep loathing of the film Life is Beautiful. So go read his thoughts on the subject here and here, where he’s reprinting the relevant section of his critical piece on the film from Imprints, the small-circulation socialist journal.

I nod at almost every sentence, either agreeing, or seeing exactly where he’s coming from and strongly sympathizing, or not knowing exactly what he’s talking about because I don’t know the other artworks he mentions, but strongly suspecting that he’s onto something. And I also agree with his central argument about what it is that’s really wrong with the film, which is more or less why I hated the film so much when I saw it in 1999 — which also happens to be the reason why I think the film failed in its own – or at least in its own director’s – terms.

I read an interview somewhere where Benigni said something about how he wanted to make a film in which he put his stock clown character in the most extreme situation imaginable. And that’s not obviously an unworthy goal. But the point is that he just didn’t manage to do that in La vita è bella, because again and again in the film the camp was presented as being a less oppressive place than we have reason to believe that Nazi camps in fact were (even in the absence of the kinds of gruesome scenes that Norm lists as being absent from the mind’s eye when viewing the film). Benigni’s character is tolerably able to move around the camp unmolested at night, get work in the officer’s lodgings, exchange certain kinds of messages with his wife, etc., as he continues the work of persuading his child that this is all a game. And so whatever else this is, this isn’t a film in which the stock character is placed in the most extreme situation imaginable, but a film in which the representation of a Nazi extermination camp is organised around the requirements of the plot of a light comedy. And that (or so it seems to me) is a pretty ethically dubious way of manufacturing Holocaust-related art.

Perhaps I saw the film too soon after a visit to Auschwitz/Birkenau, so I couldn’t help but relate what I saw on the screen to what I’d seen in Poland and read about beforehand, but in general as I watched the film, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that — some powerful images aside — Benigni had given us a much kinder, gentler Nazi camp than the historical record warranted. Artistically, that fact was fatal both for my enjoyment of the film (not that I want to watch films of Nazi atrocities, please note) and, so it seemed to me subsequently, for what I learned about the director’s own artistic ambitions. And politically it seemed repulsive, because for better or for worse we live in an era where lots of people get their education about subjects as serious as the Holocaust from films like La vita è bella, and I’d certainly hate it if this film really were the source of a lot of people’s Holocaust awareness.

A small number of people whose judgment I generally respect tell me that they think it’s not a bad film, all things considered. But it really, really stank for me. I mean, I hated Ridicule for lots of reasons. But when all’s said and done, that was just unfunny and generally worthless. La vita è bella is something else altogether.