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About Jenna Cato Bass

I'm a director, writer, photographer, aspiring explorer and retired magician living in Cape Town, South Africa

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My Favorite Films About Death

Posted December 07, 2010

So as my script TOK TOKKIE is about death and it's the end of the year and all, it's understandable that a degree of melancholia is to be expected. So, I thought I'd make a list of the best films that deal with the subject to end all subjects. That and I also just had to kill a cockroach. So, without further ado...



Introduction: The first time I ever saw anyone killed in a film was Air Force 1. Yes, I'd probably seen stabbings and shootings and other family-friendly offings of unsavory characters, but the first time I saw someone irrefutably die was in Air Force 1 and I was about five years old. My first encounter with the concept that even good people will die was The Great Escape. I was about nine and my surprised parents had to deal with the nervous breakdown that ensued when Donald Pleasance walked blindly into the midst of the awaiting Nazis. The first time I enjoyed watching people die was The Usual Suspects. I was probably fourteen. It's all been downhill since then... 

The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman) - I know, the obvious choice, but let's not hold that against it. Every bit as iconic as they tell you in film school. And of course, Bergman is definitely one of the greats to really grab Death by the... you get the idea.

Ikiru (Akira Kurosawa) - Kurosawa brilliance at work, which I think is even more evident in the heart of a dying man than on the epic battlefields.  

The Shootist (Don Siegel) - two aging filmstars, John Wayne and James Stewart, two old men, sit and discuss what makes a good death. 

Afterlife (Hirokazu Raifu) - This film explains it all: When we die we all go to a pleasantly derelict building, where a team of social worker beaurocrats help us choose our favourite memory, to be recreated for us to live out for all eternity. See? All sorted. Actually no, the pleasant fantasy is more terrifying, though I'm not sure if that was intentional. 

Fluke (Carlo Carlei)/All Dogs Go to Heaven (Bluth, Goldman, Kuenster) - what would a movie death list be without a few dog films (condensed into one for brevity). Possibly because for a privileged some, our first brush with death is through a pet's passing... I don't know how these films were supposed to be enjoyed by children. 

Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself (Lone Scherfig) - Despite its suicide obsessed protagonist, this film is really more about living. But this is a severely underrated film (much better than Lone Scherfig's next - An Education), so I'm putting it out there. And this is my list so I make the rules.

Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu) & Umberto D (Vittorio De Sica) - I know I'm being unfair lumping these films together, but I'm trying to get thios list in under fifteen movies. Ageing, loneliness and bewilderment in a world which most likely forget you. Best confront these things now.

The Grey Zone (Tim Blake Nelson) - the strangest and most fascinating ending I have seen in a long time. 

No Country for Old Men/A Serious Man/The Man Who Wasn't There (Joel & Ethan Coen) - taking the giant strides across the existentialist plane as they do with all their great films, the Coens can't help but touch on Death. No Country is probably the obvious example... but I couldn't resist the other two for my Coen-completionist-compulsion. 

Mr Death (Errol Morris) - Definitely death at its more bizarre.

Harold & Maude (Hal Ashby) -  Another one wich is more about the joys of life than death itself, but still an insightful portrait on how different people cope with the shadow of mortality. And of course the best faux suicides ever committed to celluloid.


And then because I am a stickler for thoroughness and hate to exclude films... here are four films I haven't seen yet, but probably would have made the grade if I had: A Taste of Cherry (Abbas Kiarostami), Death Takes a Holiday (Mitchell Leisen), A Matter of Life and Death (Powell & Pressburger), Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch).





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Quelle Afrique + A hard world for little things

Posted December 02, 2010


For one night only - a few of my favourite things... (a la Julie Andrews, not John Coltrane, sorry Jacques)...



Yesterday I saw my first film by Ousmane Sembene. Yes, I intend to make films on the African continent, and I had never seen a movie by its very own doyen. For those of you who don't know, Sembene is the godfather of African cinema - not only the first black African to make a film on the continent, but one who made cinema into a career, and an art. His films deserve to be seen and respected. And I had never seen one. Yet, I don't feel particularly ashamed personally. And this is because the only way I could really see a Sembene film yesterday was by sneaking into the African Studies (not the Film) library, where I was recently given tentative permission to come, despite not being a student, because The Tunnel has been added to the collection. Outside of there, I have never seen a physical copy of a Sembene film, neither in shop or rental store. Broadband is far too slow for the most part to stream films, or even, for many, download. We were taught no African cinema at college. I only found out who he was sometime last year. So the irony: I was only able to see a Sembene film once I had made a film. Yet his works are definitely part of what should be inspiring and encouraging local filmmakers. Crikey, we HAVE got a cinematic heritage, and there it is. 

The film I watched first was "Black Girl" (one of the few not on VHS) and I was hugely impressed by its sensitive politics, powerful humanism, thrillingly poetic and startlingly frank. I don't know if I've really seen anything like it. Today I watched 'Guelwaar'. Tomorrow I may very well watch another.

I know Sembene is known and respected throughout Africa, so I am noting this lack from a South African perspective. What prompted this manhunt was the fact that I'd been asked to comment for the second time in a week on Sembene's influence on The Tunnel. It was getting ridiculous. It is ridiculous. I would get angry that people would assume I had seen all African films just because I live here. On the persistence of vision that Africa is all one big country. But at the same time, I should have seen African films. It was my loss, and all of our losses. 



And now for a rant of a different sort: My cause this time, Charles Laughton's NIGHT OF THE HUNTER. This film crops up on various 'Best of, like, forever' Lists, and yet it seem to me, again from my bottom of the world perspective, whatever that means, that it goes largely unappreciated considering how absolutely SPECTACULAR it is. Night of the Hunter, is not only a great film, it is surely one of the greatest, the most ahead of its time, the most down right prophetic. Seldom, at the time of its release, before it, and even since, had stories been told so concisely, wound so taught, relevently, scathingly and daringly. NTH's sexual politics, its context of the depression, its disillusionment in adulthood and religion, its confrontation of the dead-end plight of children, this and more blows me away each time I watch it. So you see, No. 72 on a best of 100 films of all time just doesn't cut it for me. I really want you all to see this film, and at the same time I don't. What is it about some great films that makes us want to hold them close, keep them for ourselves alone, deny ourselves the pleasure of sharing? Maybe because a good film is like a good dream, telling you something about yourself you don't want others to know. We all love to have our own secrets, and the cinema is often our only confidante. Perhaps, perhaps. Whatever a reason, just sit back and imagine - imagine a world where Charles Laughton had been allowed to make more than just one film....imagine what that world would be like...



Don't get me started, but he's the reason for my other latest obsession...



I grew up on these in one form or another, and being the Welles acolyte I am I have all the Campbell and Mercury Theatre shows. But I've been delving further recently, dredging up Lux Theatre, Screen Guild Theatre, Suspense, The Creaking Door (originally South African) and Victory Theatre. My main aim was to satisfy an intense and slightly morbid desire to have access to Jimmy Stewart's voice all the time, but in the process I discovered a treasure trove which has been really fascinating in terms of storytelling. Many of the episodes featured Hollywood stars reprising their roles in successful pictures, condensed into an hour (including the copious and flagrant sponsor advertising), using only sound. Some of them handle the task with the tenderness of a meat tenderizer, whereas in others the feat is truly remarkable. Case in point is the radio adaptation of It's A Wonderful Life (rewatched recently - had forgot how progressive it was - pre-postmodern freeze frames, rewinding, commentary, and who could forget the talking galaxies), which condenses a sometimes convoluted feature into less than fifty minutes. Who knows, maybe it's just the magic of Jimmy, but they're great fun. You can download tons of them sans guilt (the joys of public domain!) at the awesome Internet Archive.



I tend to do a LOT of research for whatever script I'm working on, and am starting to realize that it often overloads me in ways which make the script to info heavy. So what better way to remind myself of real clarity than by reading really really great short stories, and writing some of my own again. Then again, when it comes to clarity, one could always turn to...



Reading the Truffaut/Hitchcock interviews - you can also find the audio online - hugely entertaining read and very, very informative - really great introduction to filmmaking, wish I'd had it from day one. Also - problematic but underrated Hitchcock- 'Shadow of a Doubt' - far more interesting that some of Hitch's more accepted fare like 'To Catch a Thief' et al. 


Starting to realise that one can only have so many favourite things... so stopping now... going to go listen to Jimmy in 'Destry Rides Again'...


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