Archive for Verhoeven

Trans Europ Expression

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 22, 2007 by dcairns

The amazing DAISIES.

Reader Elver Loho writes from Estonia:  “You’ve recently blogged a lot about old European cinema and… I gotta admit, with a few rare exceptions, all the names and titles are completely alien to me. Despite being European myself. “The question I’d like to ask you is… What’s currently wrong with
European cinema and how do we fix it? Hollywood is cranking out huge global hits every year, but nowadays only a few European films become popular in USA. (Or in Europe for that matter) Even Asian cinema is way more popular on the global market. What is Europe lacking that Asia and USA have?” 
Lo-res Loho

There are a lot of questions there and they have to be tackled individually. I think the first statement is interesting and points to the problem of finding out about older films: many more of them are readily available to buy than ever before, but it’s not easy to know WHAT to buy, and television doesn’t play the role it used to in introducing kids to old movies. But Elver is obviously more than usually interested in cinema and will undoubtedly find his way to the films that speak to him. The second point has many possible answers, and I can only attempt to offer mine. Enough ROPE...

At least as far back as the 1920s, European cinema has been dwarfed and dominated by the U.S. Hitchcock suggested that this was partly because the United States was composed of foreigners, so they could easily address the rest of the world. Certainly Hollywood could afford to buy up the best talent from around abroad, enhancing its own output and incidentally disabling the film industries of Germany, Sweden, Britain…  But this isn’t to say that European film has always been in a state of crisis (just Britishfilm). There are clear roles for European films which are both commercially viable and culturally essential. We can and must tell our own stories in Europe, which can sometimes travel the world, or might simply stay within national boundaries and make their money at home. I’ve written already about some uniquely British cultural oddities which haven’t been much seen outside the U.K. All that’s necessary for the above scenario to work is for the European countries to make films which, at the very least, appeal somewhat to their own populations, at a level which allows recoupment. I would expect many of these films to incidentally also have international appeal, as most good stories can stand translation. So, if there IS a crisis, it would mean that European countries are not making popular films. On the whole I think some are, some aren’t. I think some countries, such as Britain, suffer from a rather strong division between purely commercial junk on the one hand and miserable downbeat “serious” cinema on the other.


I don’t believe, personally, that “serious” is or should be the same thing as “depressing”, and I find a lot of British film depressing, either because it tries like mad to BE depressing, or it tries to entertain in a mindless and sometimes vicious way. I don’t think either of those are great options for “commercial” or “art” cinema. In Scotland we have a whole, recognised tradition of “miserablism” which is driving Scottish audiences away from their own national cinema.

Note that I have blogged before about extremely dark films like COME AND SEE and SEPPUKU, which don’t seem to me to be depressing at all. 

Roving back to the 50s, 60s and early 70s, when “arthouse” was at its height, we can see that a lot has changed, irrepairably. In those days, art cinema could be sold on sex. Nowadays, people who want sex can get it, in abundant variation, in porn. Sex only really sells if it involves movie stars, since that at least has novelty. And America can buy up all the movie stars.





But looking back at the cinema of those bygone glory years, we also see that art cinema was incredibly entertaining. THE SEVENTH SEAL is a very funny film. EIGHT AND A HALF is funny and dazzling and exciting. DAISIES is sexy and silly and hysterically funny. And filmmakers working in this tradition today are still getting small-but-sufficient audiences because they offer something different, unique. David Lynch’s films freak us out more than any mainstream horror film can. And they also provide sexual thrills far removed from anything likely to be packaged in a regular drama.


If an Eastern European lesbian can make a funny film, what excuse do the rest of us have?  

What I’m not suggesting is that we all go out and make American-styled films. I’ve seen British films with steaming manhole covers, and it doesn’t work. We don’t have that over here. We can by all means steal from the Americans, and from anybody else (somebody, steal from the Japanese! PLEASE!), but we have to be telling our own stories. There needs to be a core of Britishness, Frenchness, Germanity, Czechismo, Turkhood. Something that differentiates our stuff from the Americans’ — precisely because “everybody” prefers American films, nobody wants cheap knockoffs.   

I’m not a huge fan of NIGHT WATCH and DAY WATCH, but my favourite bits are precisely those that have a Russian flavour. I find Luc Besson’s stuff absolutely intolerable, but there’s a soupçon of Frenchness that I guess stops them plunging forever into a midatlantic chasm like the hero of THE BIG BLUE. They don’t QUITE feel like calling-card films, and indeed Besson has remained a French filmmaker even though I presume he feels quite out of sympathy with the critical culture of Cannes and Cahiers.


Hyperactive CGI shenanigans.

This national identity is a delicate thing, hard to pin down. It doesn’t require that all Greek films should be full of people throwing plates on the floor like Jules Dassin’s NEVER ON SUNDAY (though I would support such a move — Angelopoulos’ films have great visual style but not nearly enough smashed crockery for my taste). It just means that a Dutch film, for instance, should be something that could not have come from anywhere else. Paul Verhoeven’s BLACK BOOK satisfies this requirement admirably, whatever else one thinks of it.



One of my Central Tenets is that when a film is successful it’s because it appeals, not because it reflects the society it comes from. But reflecting society is a small but vital PART of the appeal.

The Red Shoes.

I admit this is all pretty vague and on-the-surface. A more nitty-gritty approach to these problems shall be made manifest when I grasp the nettle and blog about producers and funding bodies…



Mädchen in Uniform.

Posted in Comics, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 15, 2007 by dcairns


With the new ST TRINIANS movie due in British cinemas on the 21st, and an article on British writer-producer-directors Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat due from me immanently, I decided to watch three of the original films last night. Having seen the original BELLES OF ST TRINIANS a few years back, I decided to jump straight into the sequels, omitting only the last, WILDCATS OF ST TRINIANS, because it is a dreadful thing and anyway I don’t have a copy.

British comedy series are an odd lot, often functioning on inertia and raw acting talent rather than anything resembling good material, and yet they inspire tremendous warmth and attachment in the public here. Take the CARRY ON films — arguably three of them are consistently entertaining, out of a total of twenty-nine. Twenty-nine.

Twenty-nine films on the theme of sexual frustration, filled with closeted gay men, hefty spinsters, and sex-obsessed nitwits apparently suffering from what Schrader and Scorsese (who, presumably, know all about it) call D.S.B. (Deadly Sperm Back-up, where the unused sperm backs up to the brain and induces idiocy).

Then there are the lesser-known DOCTOR films, which made a star of Dirk Bogarde and thus prepared the way for DEATH IN VENICE and THE NIGHT PORTER, and managed to carry on for several entries even after their star had graduated to working with Basil Dearden and Joseph Losey. That’s a common trait of these series, they outlive their stars, their creators, their reasons for existing in the first place…

Such as the CONFESSIONS movies, inaugurated by British film legend Val Guest, who had been working since the thirties and earlier brought us the excellent Hammer cop thriller HELL IS A CITY. Here he took the saucy comedy format into the seventies, where suddenly you could actually SHOW full nudity and intercourse, so he did. He complained later that if these films had been subtitled they’d have been acclaimed as arthouse smashes… but aside from Verhoeven’s TURKISH DELIGHT I can’t think of any “art film” they resemble. Actually, CONFESSIONS OF A WINDOW CLEANER is like the Verhoeven movie with all the serious bits removed, and yet it still manages to be more ugly and depressing.

The fact that that film’s star, Robin Askwith, was cast in BRITANNIA HOSPITAL (and he’s very good in it) probably accounts for a decent percentage of the rotten reviews BH garnered on release: sheer guilt-by-association.

Uncontrollable hellions -- excuse my French.

Anyhow, back to our rampaging schoolgirls. The first St Trins film is based on the cartoons of Ronald Searle, which are in turn derived from stories Searle heard about the real St Trinnean’s, a “progressive” boarding school right here in Edinburgh where the girls were allowed to run wild as nature intended. (Hey, listen, another Edinburgh girls’ school inspired the source material of William Wyler’s THESE THREE and THE CHILDREN’S HOUR!)

Edinburgh connection 2: that superb eccentric actor Alastair Sim stars in the first film and cameos in the second, dragging up to play Miss Fitton, the dithering, corruptible headmistress, as well as her ne’er-do-well brother. Here we see the British love of drag combined with that fondness for multiple role-playing later developed in DR. STRANGELOVE and O LUCKY MAN!

 (Sim’s very  best work for Launder and Gilliat is in the marvellous GREEN FOR DANGER, available now from Criterion).

Sim declined to be confined to a film series, and so the later films import a succession of star comedians in a vain attempt to replace him. First into the breach is Terry-Thomas, who obviously I’m a fan of, and if BLUE MURDER AT ST TRINIANS used him more thoroughly, things might have gone better. But all the sequels seem to divide their energies and plotlines to damaging effect, and the rot sets in right here. Although hearing T-T say things like “That’s a bit adjacent, isn’t it?” is never less that a pleasure, there isn’t enough rigour in integrating him into a storyline that needs  him.

Stars from the first film are back, notably Joyce Grenfell, whose entrance in the first film had established her as a brilliant film comedian and a sympathetic presence. Curiously, Launder and Gilliat seem to have fixed on the idea of mistreating her character, goody-two-shoes Police Constable Ruby Gates, as their main approach to her character. In the first film the abuse all comes from the rampaging schoolkids, which makes sense, but her two sequels tend to separate her off into unproductive sidetracks.

Better use is made of George Cole, a younger actor mentored by Sim, who appears in four of the films as Flash Harry, an archetypal fifties “spiv” character (basically, a Cockney black marketeer, a sort of Teddy Boy version of Harry Lime) who for some reason became the series’ only essential figure (he’s back in the new version, portrayed by comedian and sex god Russell Brand). Cole is very zestful, firing off malapropisms at speed (‘I don’t want to appear inhospital,’ and ‘Greek Archie-pelly-logo’) but the best thing about the character is his theme tune, a pub piano leitmotif  which strikes up with mechanical regularity whenever Harry takes more than a couple of steps, like a proletarian James Bond theme. This, and the jaunty St Trinians theme itself, are the work of Sir Malcolm Arnold, best-known for arranging the Colonel Bogey March for BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI.

BLUE MURDER takes the girls to Rome, where the sixth form all aim to marry an Italian prince, and the filmmakers blagged permission to shoot in the Forum and Colisseum on the grounds that they were making a “cultural documentary”.

PURE HELL AT ST TRINIANS does not take place at the school at all, it having been arsoned to oblivion, and again transports the riotous kids abroad, with the sixth form abducted into a Sheikh’s harem. One of the very strange things about the series, and about British culture generally, is the mainstream media’s use of school uniforms as fetishwear, while our moral guardians shriek about pedophiles hiding in the shrubbery. The St Trinians films mine this imagery while serving up slapstick comedy for little kids — it’s quite disturbing, or almost.

This movie includes Cecil Parker as guest star, but for some reason he’s insufficiently larger-than-life to really hold it all together. He’s perfectly good, but to see him really shine it’s  better to check out his work in Gilliat’s THE CONSTANT HUSBAND, where he’s a sports-obsessed psychiatrist treating an amnesiac bigamist… The other strongest element in PURE HELL is Irene Handl, an adored character actor who can be seen to great effect in MORGAN and THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES. Here she’s a teacher with a background in lunatic asylums. “Soon I may be the only one around here with a certificate proving my sanity!”

With THE GREAT ST TRINIANS TRAIN ROBBERY in 1966 the series shunted into Technicolor and adopted comic Frankie Howerd as a hairdresser-turned-trainrobber. It’s a very very colourful film indeed, which proves to be a Bad Thing, and Howerd is again underused. Really Howerd isn’t a team player: he mugs and scene-steals atrociously, but the best response to this is to encourage it, since he’s so good, yet Launder seems determined to integrate Howerd into an unpromising ensemble.

Howerd’s best film scenes are usually his big public speeches: he got a great one at the start of CARRY ON DOCTOR, but there’s nothing like that here, so he mainly entertains just by presenting his impossibly large, pendulous face to the camera and squinting evilly.

TRAIN ROBBERY features a few half-hearted nods to sixties fashions, music, crime, and film-making: the speeded-up chase sequence maybe owes something to Richard Lester, but as it’s conducted back and forth over the same hundred feet of track about fifty times, it doesn’t really generate any pace and the gags are unimaginative. There’s no Joyce Grenfell in this one and the series still neglects to develop any of the schoolgirls themselves as proper characters, which is odd, really.

But there was worse to come. Described by my screenwriting friend Colin McLaren as the “you-can-see-it-going-in, hard porn version”, WILDCATS OF ST TRINIANS ups the raunch factor enough to make it a queasy experience, although Colin does exaggerate the penetrative aspect considerably. But there’s a line in the sand, or should be, between the mild seaside postcard comedy of the first films and the naked schoolgirls served up in this travesty, which actually came out in 1980, after British smut had basically rolled over and died at the box office anyway. It’s the equivalent of CARRY ON EMMANUELLE, a depressing extension of a fundamentally innocent series into more explicit territory.

I need to wash that memory away with some good old-fashioned British toilet humour:

The great Dudley Sutton (who was in my first short film).

Original Ronald Searle St Trins girls.