The Silent World (1956)

ioc4

For better or worse, there’s a tremendous sense of fun in Jacques Cousteau & Louis Malle’s seminal The Silent World.

I have long known of Jacques Cousteau and his pioneering technology through my father, he transferred his childhood interest of diving and the oceans onto me. Despite this, I was not aware that Cousteau and his team were the subject of several feature-length documentaries with two Academy Awards and a Palme D’or to boast of. When I stumbled upon The Silent World in a CEX shop, I was immediately attracted to the idea of seeing the ocean through the wonderful vibrancy of Technicolor – it was one of the first films to create such an experience.

The documentary follows Cousteau, his crew and a lucky little Dachshund aboard the Calypso. They may grow tired in the oppressive sunlight and absence of activity when they’re travelling across the vast, lonely stretches of ocean, but it is all proved worthwhile when they get into the water.

Using Cousteau’s Aqualung, the men swim around with relish, in one instance encircling a sponge diver heaving along in a metal helmeted diving suit that today we see only in tacky gold fish bowls. The man hiding in his relic of a suit doesn’t mind the aqualung upstarts, the men shake hands and scour the seabed for sponges together.

The greatest liberation however is afforded by their rotary propelled underwater vehicles. They glide among an array of wildlife with ease, including a sea turtle, with one diver seizing the opportunity and hitching a ride on the majestic animal’s back until it’s exhausted – it all looks thoroughly enjoyable until he overstays his welcome.

mir-tishinyiYou never see David Attenborough having this much fun.

Indeed, the documentary regularly reminds you of the age it comes from – they provoke most of the animals they encounter! When they happen across the group of whales, the skipper decides to try and harpoon one with little success, Cousteau narrates: ‘Under our skipper’s nose is a whale sixty feet long and he can’t resist having a crack at it’.  Soon after this, the Calypso’s propellers mortally injure a small whale and the crew mercifully kill the profusely bleeding animal.

This inevitably attracts scores of sharks, and the crew’s reaction to them surprised me more than anything in the film. Cousteau narrates: ‘For us divers, the sharks are our mortal enemies.’ As the sharks tear through the whale carcass of the men’s making, he continues: ‘Every seaman hates the sharks, after what we have seen, the divers can’t be held back, they grab anything they can to avenge the whale.’

The men proceed to brutally catch the sharks, tearing their mouths open as they yank them on board, battering some of them with the blunt end of an axe. Marine biologists would abhor such attitudes and behaviour today, however like with the lobsters and flying fish earlier in the film, the Frenchman probably made good use of them in the kitchen.

jc22The little Dachshund is used to such sights.

No animal is left unpestered, even land animals aren’t safe. When the men arrive at a desert island, they meet a group of giant tortoises and sit and stand on them as they casually eat their lunch. The men’s irreverence seems to leave an impression on the Dachshund, as he is seen nipping at the legs of a poor tortoise trying to mind his own business.

Their cavalier style also sees them blowing up part of a coral reef and collecting the detritus in the name of science – it’s an awfully destructive approach to taxonomy.

The crew restore your faith in them somewhat when they befriend ‘Ulysses’, a gregarious eighty-pound Grouper fish who, along with scores of other fish, becomes surprisingly tame when the men present them with a bag of delicious gristle.

There are moments where the men contrive conversations to show the viewer the procedures that happen aboard the ship. I use the word contrive because of how awfully stilted the men are, but this is mainly because of the useless dubbing on my Blu-ray, so I’ll give the crew’s acting abilities the benefit of the doubt. I liked Cousteau’s French-inflected English narration, but I would have preferred subtitles when the men spoke to each other.

The Silent World is a charismatic documentary that provides a compelling insight into the history of both diving and underwater photography.

78%

Advertisements

Peeping Tom (1960)

 Peeping Tom

Peeping Tom has undeservedly become a critics’ darling.

Peeping Tom follows Mark Lewis, an introverted voyeur living in his late father’s large London property. To help make ends meet, Mark lets part of the house out to several people. One of his tenants is Helen Stephens, a sweet young woman who befriends him out of pity. Throughout the film Mark struggles to conceal his voyeuristic habit from her.

However, Mark Lewis is not just a peeping tom, he’s a murderer who records his crimes for warped posterity. Despite this, the film is has dated badly – the passage of time has neutered a film that wasn’t particularly disturbing in the first place. Clearly, the film is going to date, it’s 52 years old, but so is Psycho, which covers similar ground but in a appropriately graphic manner.

In a screening of the Hitchcock classic at my local independent cinema, I was surprised by the genuine anxiety I felt during the half-hour or so before the shower scene. This is the film’s defining moment; it is a classic example of a director battering his audience with what they believe is explicit violence when in fact he has shown very little. Michael Powell makes no such illusions in this film – he shows very little, period. For example, in this scene, Mark approaches one of his victims with a blade attached to his camera, and just before the blade makes contact, the woman falls out of frame, shrilly screaming “Mark!”.

Most modern audiences will agree that this just doesn’t cut it anymore. This scene depicts the creation of a snuff film, but it doesn’t feel like it, does it? Mark shares common ground with people like Leonard Lake and Charles Ng, the sordid serial killer partnership whose recordings make for deeply, deeply disturbing viewing. Peeping Tom should feel like a descent into one man’s world of degeneracy, a twisted existence that’s punctuated by lapses into frenzied sexual violence and eroticised death. This can be done without tasteless exploitation, the most germane example I can think of is Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986). 

Powell should be commended for approaching these darkest of themes, but his work just doesn’t hold up today. To think this film was given an ’18’ certificate as recently as 2001 is nothing short of baffling. The BBFC have since given the film a 15 certificate, but I think a 12 rating would be appropriate.

The lack of visceral edge is exacerbated by poor acting from almost the entire cast. Performances both wooden and overacted drag you further out of the film; it becomes an even bigger problem than its dated violence. However, thanks to Carl Boehm’s generally competent performance, Mark Lewis is the only interesting and somewhat credible character, but even Boehm is guilty of being badly stilted in places.

The only thing that’s noteworthy about this film is its historical audacity. This film was addressing themes that didn’t begin to approach mainstream until the 1970s, the New Hollywood era of rapidly changing opinions on sex and violence. If it had been released 15 years later and not championed by Martin Scorsese and various critics, it may well have faded into obscurity.

50%