Saturday, January 24, 2009

Film! What it Usually is... and What it can be

As I was writing up this post I was reminded of my silly top ten lists handy reference lists on the difference between Hollywood-style movies and European movies.

Last Chance Harvey
(2008) is a predictable love story, with Dustin Hoffman as Harvey, a down-on-his-luck, socially-awkward American, visiting London to attend his somewhat-estranged daughter's wedding. Emma Thompson is a survey-taker at Heathrow, whose mother (Eileen Atkins!) is concerned that her middle-aged daughter get hitched soon. The two meet, and meet again and then things start happening in a very Hollywood way, complete with a trying-on-of-funny-dresses montage.

It was all pretty well put together, except for the casting of Dustin Hoffman. My friend and I could see the appeal of Emma Thompson's character and why he might fall for her. But there was no evidence as to why she might fall for him. In person and in personality he lacked deeply, with one redeeming quality, and that was that he had some facility as a jazz pianist. The fact that Hoffman is 20 years older than Thompson (at least) didn't help. Thompson's character was at the stage where she might be moving on from men in their 30s. Hoffman is 71. 71. Post-movie I made the comment that William H. Macy might have been a better choice. My friend suggested Al Pacino, and I thought that was perfect. Because no matter how old Pacino gets, that man will always have "IT." And Hoffman never had it to begin with.

And then there's Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), which I quoted yesterday. In the 1980s BBC2 (or was it Channel 4?) showed a retrospective of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's films. I watched them all, but it was this one that stayed with me. I borrowed the magnificent Criterion DVD from the library this week and watched the film for the first time in over 20 years.

I find it as moving as I did then. Brigitte Mira plays a cleaning lady in her 60s who falls in love with a Moroccan guest-worker at least 20 years younger than her. Mira was in her 60s when she made this film. At 93 she was interviewed and that was one of the wonderful extra features on the DVD. She's as lucid and playful as she ever was. Todd Haynes features also, talking about the inspiration that All That Heaven Allows (1955) provided for Fassbinder for this film, and for himself in Far From Heaven (2002). Ali is very much a retelling of All That Heaven Allows, but the cruelty of those around Emmi and Ali is more stylized, like the frozen tableaux of disapproving people staring at them. A chilling moment comes when Emmi introduces her husband to a co-worker. The woman's lip curl of disdain is quite chilling. Her children are appalling (her son-in-law played by Fassbinder himself). The end is perfect. This film took 16 days to film. It boggles the mind what is possible on a small budget when real artists are involved.

So... a film about people of different ages, different backgrounds, coming together in somewhat unexpected partnerings. One of these films moved me 20 years ago and moved me again now and probably always will. As for Harvey, he had his chance.

Photograph (lifted saucily from the Criterion website): Brigitte Mira as Emmi and El Hedi ben Salem as Ali.


Pamela Terry and Edward said...

Harvey tempts me for the scenes of London alone. I do love Emma, but understand completely your thoughts about Dustin. Pacino would have been perfect. In anything.

Blog Princess G said...

You speak wisely O Pamela (and Edward).