BBC’s Arena celebrates one of the great modern film makers.

Mick Jagger in Nic Roeg and Donald Cammell's Performance.

Mick Jagger in Nic Roeg and Donald Cammell’s Performance.

Nicolas Roeg has only made 13 films in total, but the first seven of them makes up one of the most important bodies of work in European cinema.

He began in the camera department, and by the 1960s he was the cinematographer on some of Britain’s most iconic films, working on Lawrence of Arabia, Far From the Madding Crowd and Doctor Zhivago, though he remained un-credited on that last one after a falling out with David Lean.

Then in 1970 he made his directorial debut Performance, which, unusually for a British film, he directed together with Donald Cammell. Roeg concentrated on the look of the film, and Cammell worked with the actors and on the script. The gifted but troubled Cammell then made Demon Seed in 77, but when the studio mangled their cut of his Wild Side in 1995, he committed suicide.

Julie Christy in Don't Look Now.

Julie Christy in Don’t Look Now.

Although the world of Performance is very much the one that Cammell inhabited, with its heady mix of the Mayfair set and gangster London, it looks and feels like a Roeg film. And the casting of Mick Jagger in one of the leads would be followed subsequently by Roeg with David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth and Art Garfunkel in Bad Timing.

Walkabout, his first film proper, was next in ’71. A startlingly original take on the clash of civilizations as a white boy and girl are left to fend for themselves in the Australian outback after being abandoned there. But it was Don’t Look Now in ‘73 that really caught the world’s attention.

Donald Sutherland and Julie Christy are in Venice trying to come to terms with the death of their child. The film unfolds with an elliptical, almost casually poetic moulding of time, and it is this more than anything that characterizes Roeg’s work.

David Bowie as The Man Who Fell To Earth.

David Bowie as The Man Who Fell To Earth.

This strikingly lateral, almost anti linear sense of time, and one of the most memorable and grown up sex scenes in modern cinema woke the world up to a serious European film maker.

The Man Who Fell To Earth followed in ‘76, Bad Timing in ‘80, Eureka in ‘83 and then Insignificance in ‘85. All are criminally over-looked. They each manage to be dazzlingly original in their look and feel as they tackle existential themes with a deft lightness of touch. Intellectual depth explored with visual brilliance, panache and originality, so that form and content perfectly merge.

Teresa Russell in the criminally overlooked Insignificance.

Teresa Russell in the criminally overlooked Insignificance.

If you’ve yet to see any of them, lucky you, it’s all ahead of you.

Castaway was something of a damp squib in 86, but Track 29 in 88, scripted by Denis Potter was a return to form. But his film of Roald Dahl’s The Witches in 90 was another mild disappointment, falling somewhere in between a children’s and a grown up’s film.

And that alas is pretty much it. There have been three films since, but they are hardly worth mentioning in the context of what had come before. And ever since, Roeg has been talking to various producers and financiers about making a comeback. So the Arena profile, aptly titled It’s About Time on BBC4 was something of a mixed blessing.

Gene Hackman in Eureka.

Gene Hackman in Eureka.

On the one hand, it was finally some sort of recognition for, arguably, the most important, and certainly the most original film maker that Britain has ever produced. On the other, if felt like an admission of defeat as far as any future projects are concerned.

Watch the Arena profile. And then treat yourselves to one of those first seven films of his.

Rather like David Bowie’s six albums between Young Americans and Scary Monsters, those first seven films of Roeg’s manage to be at once extraordinarily varied and yet visibly, distinctly crafted by the same brilliant hand.

In the meantime, here’s the trailer  for Don’t Look Now. And this by the way is how you cut a trailer. Every studio head in Hollywood should be forced to watch this at least once a week.

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“The Jinx”, unmissable and horribly addictive.

"The Jinx"

“The Jinx”

First things first, there’ll not be any spoilers here whatsoever. To deprive anyone of the constant stream of surprises and guilty pleasures this six part documentary continually serves up would be a veritable crime.

If ever anyone asks you, what’s a cliff, all you need say is, episode 5, The Jinx. I had to forcibly refrain from watching all six one after the other, and to somehow constrain myself to but two episodes in a row, over three weekends.

I won’t talk about any of the actual story, apart from what is revealed in the opening 15 minutes of the first episode.

There, we hear of a dismembered body that was discovered off the coast of Texas, and how, almost within minutes, one Robert Durst was arrested after he was stopped blithely driving about town with a newly purchased hack saw on the back seat of the car. Not in the boot mark you. On the seat.

Capturing The Friedmans.

Capturing the Friedmans.

Durst it transpires is the eldest son and heir of the Durst empire, one of the most powerful property dynasties in New York. One World Trade Center is one of numerous buildings the family have on the island of Manhattan. Neither was he a stranger to controversy. His wife had mysteriously disappeared 18 years previously, and many of her family suspect his involvement.

When it got to trial, he explained that although he had indeed killed and chopped up his next door neighbour, he’d killed him accidentally, in self-defence. And that he’d only chopped him up afterwards as, well, how else do you dispose of someone you’ve accidentally killed, and whose death you could easily find yourself being wrongly blamed for?

The subject confronted; the reveal.

The film maker and subject; the reveal.

Needless to say, the story made all the papers, not least the New York Times. Mesmerised New Yorkers watched as one of their own appeared at the centre of one of those stories that people like him would normally look down their noses at from an Olympian height.

One of the people whose attention was grabbed was the film maker Andrew Jarecki, who comes from a similarly moneyed background. And after he had made his startling directorial debut, the brilliant Capturing the Friedmans in 2004, he decided that his next project would be a fictionalised version of Durst’s travails. But he was determined to do so from an avowedly neutral position. After all, what if he really is innocent? Unsurprisingly, the film that resulted, All Good Things was something of a damp squib.

The master.

The master.

But when then he was asked on the mandatory promotional tour what reaction he would like his film to produce, he replied that he’d love to hear what Durst himself made of it. And sure enough soon after, Durst rings, telling him he really liked the film – as damning an indictment as any film could wish for – and would he be interested in interviewing him?

And so Jarecki recorded a genuinely exclusive interview with the man who had hitherto refused to give his side of the story, to anyone. And from that interview – or interviews – Jarecki began to piece together the two different versions of his past, that he and his accusers both insist is what really happened.

So from a mixture of recorded interviews, both video and audio, police transcripts, some especially artful, dramatic reconstructions and a slew of interviews with most of the protagonists, the two contradictory versions of his past unfold before our eyes.

"Bitter Lake", the latest film essay from Adam Curtis, this time on Afghanistan.

“Bitter Lake”, the latest erudite film essay from Adam Curtis, this time on Afghanistan.

A few critics, AA Gill most notably, have complained that it’s impossible for us to trust Jarecki precisely because his film is so artfully put together.

But that surely makes it even more of a pleasure, albeit a guilty one. It wonderfully mirrors and intriguingly reflects the very subject it charts; truth and lies and the different ways we all interpret the same events, in much the same way that Capturing the Friedmans did.

I mentioned Orson Welles’ charming film essay F For Fake in my review of Adam Curtis’ similarly visually literate All Watched Over by Machines Of Loving Grace here. Like that, The Jinx is a captivating companion piece to what should have been Welles’ legacy. Except that, criminally, nobody noticed F For Fake. It somehow managed to pass everybody by. No one’s likely to make the same mistake about The Jinx.

You can see the trailer of Capturing The Friedmans here, and for The Jinx here.

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“The Gatekeepers” an Amazing Window on Israel.

Ami Ayalon, now in the Israeli Knesset.

Ami Ayalon, now in the Israeli Knesset.

In the week when the new Swedish government announced its intention to recognize the state of Palestine, and after the back bench British MPs made a similar show of public support, last weekend’s screening of the BBC Storyville documentary The Gatekeepers made for timely viewing.

This is one of those films that you feel you ought to watch, rather than one you actually want to see. And like so many of those, it turns out to be absolutely riveting.

Directed by the Israeli Dror Moreh, who was inspired by Errol Morris’ extraordinarily revealing interview of Robert S. McNamara for The Fog Of War, The Gatekeepers is an extended interview with the last six heads of the Israeli secret service, the Shin Bet. Remarkably, it’s every bit as revealing as the film that inspired it.

The remarkable Rodriguez.

The remarkable Rodriguez.

For the last 35 years, these six men have been in charge of Israel’s internal security. And watching them grapple with their consciences whilst bemoaning the refusal of leaders on either side to seriously engage with their opposite number was fascinating, depressing and ultimately somehow hopeful.

If only, you couldn’t help but feel, it had been some of these men who’d been running the country instead of the ones who were actually elected. One of them has indeed now joined the Knesset. We can only hope. The message from all six of them was unanimous. We must engage. We need to talk. You can’t secure the state of Israel without acknowledging the fate of the Palestinians.

Muscle Shoals.

Muscle Shoals.

This is yet another in an ever more impressive rostra of docs form the Storyville team. If you haven’t already, watch Searching for Sugar Man (reviewed earlier here), Muscle Shoals (here) or the amazing and sobering The House I Live In (here). In fact you can pretty much watch any one of their films. It’s the most consistently impressive strand of documentary film making anywhere in the world. You can see the Gatekeepers trailer here.

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Andrew Marr’s Great Scots on BBC2 and Scottish Independence.

Andrew Marr's Great Scots: the Writers Who Shaped A Nation.

Andrew Marr’s Great Scots: the Writers Who Shaped A Nation.

Andrew Marr is a senior political figure at the BBC, having previously edited the London Independent. More recently, in between hosting Radio 4’s prestigious Start The Week he’s begun presenting his own documentaries. His latest, on great Scottish writers in comfortably his best to date.

The first episode was on James Boswell. Like so many Scots before and since, Boswell was torn between his blinding ambition, which demanded that he leave Scotland and head for London, and the resentment he felt at being forced to do so.

Bizarrely, he ended up teaming up with the archetypal 18th century Englishman, Samuel Johnson. Even more bizarrely, Boswell lured the jingoistic Johnson up north for a tour of Scotland, which both insisted was the most enjoyable couple of months that either of them had ever spent.

The second episode was even more successful, not to say prescient, comparing the contrasting styles and politics of Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott. Scott the conservative unionist who harboured dreams of rebellion, and Burns the Romantic poet par excellence who wrote in florid Scots inciting actual rebellion, but who worked by day as a tax inspector for the British government.

Burns not only gets his own day every year, he managed to inflict that song on all the rest of us.

Burns not only gets his own day every year, he managed to inflict that song on all the rest of us.

Marr strikes exactly the right balance between literary history and political analysis. Placing these literary giants in the context of the fierce political debate that followed the dissolving of the Scottish Parliament after the act of union in 1707, he sounds out the clear echoes without ever labouring the point.

As a proud Scotsman who nonetheless left his native soil to take the British coin at the BBC in London, Marr knows only too well of what he speaks. Wryly, he reminds us, as the Scottish so often do, that Jekyll and Hyde was written by a Scotsman. That tension that governs how they view the land south of the border and the people who live there has always been there.

So will the Scottish vote for independence this September? I get the impression they are coming to regard that previous vote accepting union some 300 years ago with increasing shame. I’ve a funny feeling the heart might rule the head. That 9-2 is looking extremely inviting. In the meantime, Andrew Marr’s Great Scots continues on BBC 2 on Saturday evening.

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Brian Epstein’s Brief but Dazzling Life with The Beatles.

Brian Epstein with the Beatles.

Brian Epstein with the Beatles.

When I saw that the documentary on Brian Epstein on BBC4 was in two parts, lasting over 3 hours, my heart sank. What more could there possibly be to learn about the Beatles? Happily, I was gloriously wrong.

In 1963, a Brian Epstein act was on the number one spot in the UK charts for 37 of the 52 weeks. Gerry and the Pacemakers, Billy J Kramer, Cilla Black, and of course the Beatles. And yet just three years later it all began to unravel.

Texas, God bless America.

Texas, God bless America.

During their tumultuous 1966 tour The Beatles received a spate of serious death threats in Japan, had their records burnt in the Philippines and had to deal in the American south with John’s bigger than Jesus remarks.

They decided to quit touring and concentrate instead on the recording studio. For Epstein, this was a disaster. Without in any way planning it, the Beatles suddenly stopped turning to their business manager for their every decision , and came instead to rely increasingly on their producer George Martin.

Much more damning from a personal perspective was the growing realization that Epstein had made a complete mess of the merchandising deals he had worked out on their behalf after The Beatles had so spectacularly broken America. Business was his purpose in life and deals were supposed to have been his currency.

And then there was his private life. Inevitably, the elegant, suave and extremely erudite gay music impresario had that taste for danger that British establishment figures seem inexorably drawn to. And he’d gone and gotten himself a bit of American rough. All too predictably, he was humiliated by him.

Epstein reposes at home.

Epstein reposes at home.

By 1967, the lonely, gay, Jewish multi-millionaire discovered that for all his apparent success, he was as much of an outsider then as he’d ever been. And that spring he attempted suicide. A few months later, on the bank holiday August weekend, he tried again. This time, there was nobody around to rescue him.

This is the sort of programme that the BBC does so fantastically well. Originally broadcast in 1998 as part of their justly famed Arena strand, it melded first hand interviews with archive footage to produce a cultural snap shot of a moment in time. And the extraordinary impact one man had on it. Keep your eye out for it.

You can see a clip here.

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