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Belle, USA / UK 2013.

Posted by keith1942 on July 16, 2014

Portrait of Dido and Elizabeth

Portrait of Dido and Elizabeth

This is a period costume drama, which retells in a somewhat fictional form the story of Dido Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). She was the illegitimate daughter of a successful C18th English sea captain and a former black slave, Maria Belle. Her father, Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) puts her, in the care of the Mansfield family at their Kenwood mansion. There she is bought up a lady of the landed gentry, though without the full rights accorded her white cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon). Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) is the Lord Chief Justice of the English legal system. And the familial crosses over with the social when he has to decide on an appeal concerning the slave ship Zong – a notorious incident where African slaves were thrown overboard on the pretext of a shortage of water. The film takes us up to the resolution of this seminal legal case and to Dido’s entry into an autonomous adult world.

This is a fairly conventional period film, what gives it distinction is the black heroine at the centre of the story. It has been directed by Amma Asante. Her previous and first feature was A Way of Life (UK 2004), a contemporary drama about working class young people, including a pregnant teenager, in South Wales. This film was notable both for its social realist style and its sympathetic and empathetic depiction of its protagonist world. Asante’s other work has been on television. Belle has a very different feel. The film project stems from the script by Misan Sagay, with whose work I am unfamiliar. It is partly funded by the British Film Institute but also be C20th Fox, and I suspect the latter has influenced the stronger generic feel in the film.

Whilst the film is an excellent production, with fine technical values and acting, I felt there were a number of problems with the way it treated this historical story. Foremost was the question of the Appeal Trial regarding the slaver Zong. The Insurers had refused to pay the claims by the ships owners for the loss of cargo. Taken to court the insurers lost and then appealed. The case was a seminal one in terms of black people, slaves and ex-slaves under British law. It also was extremely important in the developing financial capital of the City whilst the slave trade was the basis of British profitability and the developing industrial base. Alongside these key economic imperatives the case became an important opportunity for the developing antislavery movement. There was a welter of pamphlets and immense public interest.

Even at the time there were those who suggested that having a black ward in his house could affect the decision by Lord Mansfield. This is a point picked up and developed in the film.

Neither Dido’s own history or the records of English law cases in this period appear to be complete and detailed. However, it is clear that the filmmakers have taken some liberties with the historical record for dramatic purpose. This is always a tricky area in which to make judgements, but I do feel that the uses made have actually been very conventionalised.

These points emerged when I consulted Lord Mansfield A Biography of William Murray 1st earl of Mansfield 1705 – 1793 Lord Chief Justice for 32 years by Edmund Heward (Barry Rose 1979). One point concerns evidence regarding the ship Zong and the issue of water. In the film Dido, who is taking a strong interest in the case, surreptitiously finds evidence amongst Lord Mansfield’s papers and passes this to an anti-slavery campaigner, John Davinier (Sam Reid). Heward quotes Mansfield’s ruling agreeing to a new trial on appeal, which specifically mentions this evidence, thus already in the public domain.

Then we arrive at the day of the Appeal Decision. Lord Mansfield appears alone to read his decision to a packed courtroom. Did appears, cloaked but clearly recognisable as a woman and apparently the only one present! But Heward’s account notes that three judges were involved in the appeal case. It was at a hearing for the application by the insurers for a new trial that Mansfield read out his comments. Heward also notes that there is no report of an actual trial, and that the owners ‘appear to have had second thoughts’. He then comments that the publicity and public interest in the case led to later statutes prohibiting the insurance of slaves in this manner.

These are to a degree minor changes for greater dramatic effect. However, they also provide Dido with a role and influence in an important historical milestone in the anti-slavery movement. I do wonder a little at that. The film does offer scenes where Lord Mansfield airs some of the issues and contradictions in the case. But overall the film is privileging the personal over the political.

Other aspects of the film make me wonder at the accuracy of the film’s depiction of Dido’s life at Kenwood House. The film’s most noted point is that it uses a surviving painting of Dido Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray held in Scone Palace in Scotland. We see the portrait of these two young and privileged women as it is being painted in the film. To be accurate we see them sit for the painter: at one point together and at another Dido is seated alone. Meanwhile the film points up the representations of Africans in art of the period as we see [with Dido] a series of traditional portraits where a black African is typically at the feet of a white master. However, when at the film’s conclusion we come to see the actual painting, or a reproduction, the two women are not seated side by side. Lady Elizabeth is seated and very much the traditional young woman of C18th portraiture. Dido stands alongside Lady Elizabeth, pointing to her cheek and arraigned in a far more exotic garb. Apparently this is ‘one of the first portraits to show a black person on an equal eye-line with a white aristocrat’.  However, they do not seem equal. The first time I saw this painting, unaware of its significance, I assumed the black woman was a servant. The publicity material for the film suggests that Dido ‘appears vivacious and intriguing next to her cousin’s formal pose’. That seems to me to still carry the sense of the exotic and the other. The film does show the way that Dido suffers discrimination in a family that apparently cares and supports her because of her skin colour  [‘a mulatto’] and her illegitimacy. I did feel that the film never quite decided to what extent Dido was ‘integrated’ in that society. Perhaps the film’s producers were over-awed by the subject matter, or maybe the screenplay overemphasised the decorous aspect of C18th elite society. The nastier aspects of this society are all dramatised in one family, the Ashfords. Lady Ashford (Miranda Richardson) is obsessed with finding rich marital prospects for her sons: Oliver (James Norton) who proposes to Dido because she has a fortune: and James (Tom Felton) who is both racist and misogynistic. This treatment is just as dramatically conventional

Another oddity of the release in the UK was the BBFC notes on the Certification. First it warned of a ‘brief sexual assault’ which is technically accurate but over emphasises the incident in question. Then it noted ‘a discrimination theme’! As far as I can remember I don’t think that 12 Years a Slave carried such a clause. What was its purpose?

My mind goes back to Philadelphia (USA 1993) an early Hollywood foray into gay relationships. Extremely dramatic and well done but never achieving a full-blooded grasp of the subject. Belle is well worth seeing and is a fascinating exploration of an often-overlooked area. I think it would have generated more power if it did not feel so much part of the heritage film cycle. This is especially strong for the resolution, where the orchestral score [by Rachel Portman] rises and increases on the soundtrack. And that, of course, was also the problem with an earlier film set in the same period and addressing the same subject, Amazing Grace (2006).


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The way We Were, USA 1973.

Posted by keith1942 on May 28, 2014

Katie's apartment in The Way We Were

Katie’s apartment in The Way We Were

This is a film that I have enjoyed several times, partly because of the effective star pairing of Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford, and partly because it attempts, in a confused way, to address one of the darker periods in US film history. The film was re-screened at the Bradford Widescreen Weekend in a 4K DCP. This means that the original Panavision 2.35:1 was altered to 2.39:1, but it was a good transfer and great to watch. The Widescreen Weekend at Bradford is noted for the care and attention to the projection of films.

The film’s story follows the relationship of an unlikley romantic couple: Jewish Bluestocking Communist Katie (Streisand) and [in his own words] ‘White Anglo-Saxon Protestant’ Hubbel [Redford].  The film opens in 1937 with campus agitation by communists and fellow travellers for intervention in support of the Spanish Republican Government against the fascist rebellion led by General Franco. However, the focus in the story is more personal, Streisand and Redford are both would-be writers taking classes. He has talent but [in his own words] ‘everything came too easily to him’. He socialises and wins sport events whilst she works part-time to fund her studies.

They meet again in New York in the later stages of the war – he is supernumerary naval officer, she is working in radio. Here a relationship develops, though Streisand rather than Redford takes the lead. After the war they marry and move to Hollywood. But their differing value systems lead to tensions: aggravated by the HUAC investigations and the case of the Hollywood Ten.

The pair part, though they have jointly sired a daughter. They meet briefly in New York in the mid-1950s. He now writing for television, she is married and still supporting liberal causes.

The film’s treatment of liberal and left politics is fairly underdeveloped, [in typical Hollywood fashion]. However, Streisand brings a fire to the scenes where she expresses her convictions. The CP-USA line on Spain is fudged though there is a brief dig about the change of the line during World War II. When we reach the HUAC hearings and the Hollywood Ten there is little sense of the Party activities, but a lot of liberal protest. In the final scene Streisand is collecting signatures against the Atom Bomb. In fact the most political point in the film is in her New York flat, where, in a rare combination, we see pictures of Vladimir Ilich Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Paul Robeson and Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Symptomatic is the fact that I am pretty sure that we never see a picture of Karl Marx.

However, the screening was illuminated by a really interesting introduction by Tony Sloman. It appears that the film was cut shortly before release. It seems that five scenes comprising seven or eight minutes were cut by the director Sydney Pollack. This followed on from a very disappointing preview screening. It seems that after the cuts the film received a better reception. The content of the cuts is not completely clear. However, Streisand, who seems to have opposed the action, kept the deletions. Tony Sloman showed us a two-minute clip, an argument between Redford and Streisand on the eve of the well-publicised flight to Washington by Hollywood stars to support the ‘Ten’. To be honest it did not seem to have any more political content than scenes that remain in the released film.

However, it seems that some viewers found Streisand’s performance ‘strident’, which is part of the characterisation, though she is also a powerful performer. Hollywood films have almost made a convention of avoiding demanding political analysis. One thinks of the scene in Reds (1981)where Reed (Warren Beatty} explains to his politics to Louise Bryant {Diane Keaton) – thanks to cuts we never actually hear a complete sentence.

Revealingly Redford initially turned down the treatment as he thought that ‘Hubbel’s point of view’ was not given sufficient attention. I think he was probably wrong, even of the uncut version. Streisand’s several speeches are long on rhetoric but short on content. This is true of the initial meeting to ‘Support Spain’ right up to the arguments on HUAC and the Hollywood Ten. Moreover, Hubbel is given a notable speech of response at this point: [this may have been added at Redford’s insistence]. His argument is that despite any actions ‘nothing’s goin’ to change’. He claims that ‘people are more important …not causes, not principles!’. This fits with the Hubbel character, but also is a more general attitude across Hollywood films. It is what would be termed ‘apolitical’ [dictionary – politically neutral]. In fact of course such a position is quite reactionary, as it leads to a form of quietist inaction. Katie’s response is that ‘people are their principles!’ but the point requires a more political and a more concrete response: such a response may have been in a deletion?

The screenplay for the film was adapted by Arthur Laurents from his own novel [which I have not read]. However, Laurents had direct experience of HUAC and the blacklist. In that sense the film takes a ‘liberal’ rather than a left or communist line on the period covered. Having noted that Streisand’s character calls for support for the Republican fighters and the Soviet resistance to fascism with immense gusto. I mentioned Reds earlier. The film has a little [only a little] more politics in it, but certain no more gusto for the cause than exhibited by Katie.

One interesting aspect of a very effective mise en scène is Katie’s hair, as hair is often a potent signifier for female characters. At college her hair is in tight, little curls. By the time of the New York sequences it is more or less straightened…’I have it ironed’. It stays like this all through her relationship with Hubbel. Then in the final meeting the hair has reverted to the tight, little curls!


Since re-seeing the film the issue of  ‘the male gaze’ (Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema by Laura Mulvey in Screen, 1975) has come up in an Adult Education class. I never found this particular concept convincing and I was always puzzled that feminists should be influenced by the essentialist and idealist theories of Jacques Lacan. And this film is a mainstream narrative offering that does not comply with the claims of Mulvey and others.

The Way We Were is constructed around the ‘female gaze’ of Katie. The film opens in wartime New York with Katie working as a producer’s assistant in radio. Later, at a night-club, she encounters a stupefied Hubbell, [a combination of fatigue and alcohol}. We then are presented with a flashback from Katie’s point-of-view of ‘the way they were’ in the 1937 college days. The early stages of the flashback celebrate the physical beauty of Hubbell for Katie, mainly in athletic pursuits. The key scene in classroom where the lecturer reads Hubbell’s short story is mainly from Katie’s point-of-view. The story is titled ‘The All American Smile’ and the opening line runs – “In a way he was like the country he live in, everything came too easily to him”.

The flashback leads us back to the then present and the wartime relationship that develops between Kati and Hubbell.  It seemed to me that Katie’s point-of-views still predominates though we are offered more frequent ones from Hubbell. Certainly the first scene of sexual intimacy between the pair is seen as Katie experiences it.

As I suggested above when we come to the Hollywood sequences more of Hubbell’s side is presented. For example we see scenes between Hubbell and his friend J.J. [Bradford Dillman], something that did not occur in the flashback or in the New York sequences. And Hubbell’s interventions regarding the actions in support of the Hollywood Ten are given parity with those of Katie. Yet even at the end it is Katie we follow into the New York Street and then we encounter Hubbell, as she does.

Katie is clearly the central focus of the narrative and her point-of-view if the privileged point-of-view. And as an audience we enjoy the pleasures, along with her, of gazing on Hubbell [Redford] body. What strikes me about the way that the film shifts towards Hubbell’s position is that this is not because he is masculine, but [as with his short story]] he seems to embody the values of the primary audience’s country, the USA. Hubbell embodies the values of the dominant forces in US culture. In particular, he expresses a strong individualism, which is central to the ‘American way’.


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Nomura Yoshitarō

Posted by keith1942 on May 5, 2014

Nomura [lower left] on the filming of The Demon

Nomura [lower left] on the filming of The Demon

The Bradford International Film Festival included a retrospective of this Japanese film director. The programme was titled The Crime films of Yoshitarō. We saw five films, all adaptations of novels by Seichō Matsumoto. The first screening enjoyed an introductory over view to the director and his films by Alexander Jacoby. There is profile of the director in his excellent A Critical Handbook of Japanese Directors (Stone Bridge Press, 2008). Nomura followed in his father’s footsteps, both by becoming a film director and by working for his entire career at the Shochiku Studio. After a typical apprenticeship with a more experienced filmmaker Nomura started as a director in 1951. Between then and 1985 he directed over eighty feature films. He worked in a number of genres. Alex comments: “Though his work was relatively conventional in style, Nomura was never less than a competent filmmaker, and he displayed, at his best, a subtlety and finesse rare among studio artisans.”

There were also introductions to the individual films by Tom Vincent, The Festival Co-director, and Omori Chiaki, from Shochiku’s International Department. Tom mainly talked about the writer Matsumoto Seichō. Matsumoto was in the 1950s the most popular and highest-paid writer in Japan. His crime stories reflected the changing and modernising Japanese society. One distinctive feature, present in the films, were recurring journeys, often to areas remote from the thrusting urban centres and still featuring more traditional aspect s of Japanese life.

Chiaki talked about Nomura’s working practices. Once he became an established director he seems to have had a penchant for ‘ultra-realism’. On the film Stakeout there was one scene set at one a.m. and Nomura insisted on shooting it at one a.m. For another scene set on a sweltering hot summer day he insisted on turning off the air conditioning to that the actors were sweating real perspiration.

Stakeout (Harikomi, 1958, black and white scope) was the earliest of his films screened and the one that impressed me the most. It seems that this was his ‘breakout’ film after a series of genre movies, and one to which he devoted much time and resources. The basic plot follows two Tokyo detectives who journey to a remote island in South Western Japan to track down a murder suspect. They believe he will contact his ex-lover Sadako who has married a business man with three children. The first part of the film involves a pre-credit train journey and then the police procedural detail as the detectives secretly keep watch on Sadako. She finally leads them to the suspect. However, at this point the film changes dramatically. No longer involved with police procedures it become Hitchcockian as one detective follows and observes the fleeing pair. The film becomes reminiscent of Mizoguchi’s Crucified Lovers (Chikamatsu monogatari, 1954) or Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once (1937).

The ending of the main plot is predictable. However, there is a subplot as well. The younger detective is wrestling with a possible marriage: and we see messages to and flashbacks about his fiancée. And as the two detectives wait to return to Tokyo he finally comes to his decision. The cast are excellent with Oki Minoru as the young detective, Miyaguchi Seiji [the master swordsman in Seven Samurai) as his partner, and Takamine Hideko as the ex-lover Sadako. Takamine was an iconic presence in several films directed by Naruse Mikio.

The second feature was Zero Focus (Zero no Shōten, 1961, black and white scope). In this film a newly married woman journeys to the North of Japan when her husband on a business trips apparently goes missing. As she delves into the mystery we are given a series of flashbacks. These become complicated as they present different possible explanations of events from several viewpoints. The scriptwriter, also worked on Kurosawa Akira’s Rashomon, and there would appear to be a debt to that film. The film is powerful at time, but the plot seems over complicated.

The Shadow Within (Kage no Kuruma, 1970) was in colour. The main protagonist is Yukio, who is married but begins an affair with an old school friend Yasuko. In part he is motivated by his wife’s pre-occupation with various businesses she runs involving a small clique of women friends. The film is set in the years of Japan’s ‘economic miracle’ but the plot seems rather critical of the economic pre-occupations of the times. There are a number of flashbacks to Yukio’s childhood in a small seaside rural setting. The use of such a setting crosses over with other films by Nomura and stories by Matsumoto. However, Yasuko has a young son and problems arise in Yukio’s attempted relationship with the boy. There is a touch of horror in some of the scenes between the two: rather as in a western film like The Omen, 1976). As the film progresses the actuality of these problems becomes ambiguous.

The Castle of Sand

The Castle of Sand

The Castle of Sand (Suna No Utsuwa, 1974) was one of Nomura’s most popular films in Japan: it was in colour and was also the longer of the films screened. The original novel was serialised in a major national newspaper. Two Tokyo detectives investigate a mysterious murder and have to travel to a remote northern area to solve the crime. What the detectives finally unravel involves a character inflicted with leprosy. Surprisingly it seems even in the 1970s in Japan there was a strong antipathy to any contact with sufferers. The film’s liberal treatment of the problem is a reason why the film it still regarded as a classic. In the course of the film a father and son wander across the rural Japanese landscape, suffering the aversion of most people to the decease. Some critics felt these sequences were a diversion from the central plot, but I found them deeply moving. And they paralleled in some fashion the wanderings of the two fatal lovers in Stakeout.

The final film in the series was The Demon (Kichiku 1978). This was not strictly a police procedural in the sense of the other films. Most of the film was concerned with a cheap printing business run by a married couple. The husband, Sôkichi, is suddenly saddled with the children he has fathered by a mistress. This unexpected burden leads the married couple in to ever more extreme attempts to rid themselves of the unwanted children. This was a really downbeat film which was [to a degree] based on recorded events.


The whole series was rewarding and fascinating. I tended to agree with Alex Jacoby that Nomura is not a front rank Japanese director, but he is always interesting and all the films we saw had memorable sequences within them. The depiction of less frequently seen areas of Japan [which comes from the source novels] was fascinating. Moreover, Nomura has a tendency for strong women characters which I enjoyed.

It seems Nomura’s films are rarely seen outside of Japan. Two of the prints screened were in 16 mm black and white scope: the reason being that these were the only prints with of those films with English subtitles. Alex Jacoby’s study suggests that there are other Nomura crime films, and films in other genres, which are worth seeing. I hope that the opportunity to see these will arise in future.


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From Rover to Uggie: Dogs on Film

Posted by keith1942 on April 19, 2014


This was the title of an illustrated talk that I gave at the Cinema Museum in London in November 2011. Since when I watch films on DVD or the TV I am accompanied by my Border collie, Dusty, this is an area of significant interest to both of us. Of course, there are thousands of dogs across cinema, and this is especially true of the early years of the medium, when any cameraman setting up in the street was sure to record at least one of our canine friends. But as a narrative cinema developed dogs became a frequent and often conventionalised character in stories. D. W. Griffith set the tone for Hollywood when in The Birth of a Nation he showed one of the Southern belles with her dog and a little later had the chief villain kicking a dog. So I based the selected clips in a series of extracts that seemed to equate to the most common canine characters and their roles.

Importantly though I first explained one of the basic maxims that apply to dogs in film. This was an early lesson given by my friend Sue to her scriptwriting class at the Leeds-based film school – ‘Never kill the dog! Especially if it is a golden retriever’. There is an example of the latter part of this maxim in Independence Day (USA 1996). However, a more effective example can be found in The Day After Tomorrow (USA 2004). As the world freezes a group. including the young hero and heroine, take shelter in the New York Public Library. Along with them is an African-American hobo with his dog, a Border collie. Temperatures drop everything freezes – but the hero’s dad, a meteorologist, struggle through ice and snow to rescue him and his companions. To my consternation when the rescue was effected there was no sign of the dog? However, when the rescue helicopters arrive at the film’s ending the hobo and his dog re-appeared. There was clearly some continuity problems here. But on the Internet I found an explanation. A provisional cut of the film, including the poor collie being frozen to death, was screened for preview audiences. Almost to a woman and a man they complained on their cards – ‘You killed the dog!’ So some last-minute additions had to be made to the film. Fortunately this sort of error is relatively rare in the movies.

The illustrations included both silent and sound films [the latter dealt with here]. The first set of clips was under the heading Thy Friend the Dog. These included two of the most famous cinematic characters, Lassie and Uggie. Since Lassie has had possibly the longest career of any canine star we started with the first – Lassie Come Home (1943). This is set in one of the idealised Hollywood landscapes, not exactly like the Yorkshire where I walk my own dog.

The second set of clips was under the heading of To the Rescue. This must be the most common action taken by dogs in relation to human film characters. We had Toto from The Wizard of Oz (USA 1939) dragooning the three companions into a saving Dorothy from the Wicked Witch of the East. But the most exciting clip was the second episode of a Rin Tin Tin serial, The Lone Defender (1930). This has a cliff-hanger ending which provided the question for a competition – the winning entry was more imaginative than the original film.

We also paid a short tribute to a couple of humans – auteur directors with empathy for dogs. One was Alfred Hitchcock; dogs are very common in his films. A typical example is in Strangers on a Train (1951). Guy breaks into Bruno’s mansion, but his errand is to warn Bruno’s father about his psychotic son. The guard dog’s moral sense tells him Guy is a friend. The other notable director was Luchino Visconti, another dog lover. The favourite of his sequences with dogs is in Ludwig (Italy, France, and West Germany 1972) where Trevor Howard as Richard Wagner wrestles on the floor with a white Pyrenean mountain dog.

The next category was In the Pack In the Wild, with dogs reverting to nature or at least to type. This commenced with a musical ensemble from an MGM sound film, Dogway Melody , which offered a canine pastiche of the studio musicals. The climax is a really well executed chorus and soloist rendering Singin’ in the Rain to an enthusiastic doggy audience. The skills in the next clip earned a round of applause as Owd Bob (1938), the sheep dog demonstrated his skills at rounding up sheep at a Lakeland trial. This set ended with a specially requested clip, Old Yeller defending his master from a black bear.

Four Legs was concerned with the major pre-occupations for dogs food, food, food and sex. The clip featuring Pluto was concerned with food but made really nice use of mirrors. Lady & the Tramp was concerned with romanceand featured the famous spaghetti meal accompanied by the equally famous song.  Whilst Bonbón el perro (Argentina 2004) was devoted to the most basic instinct.

Asta with supporting stars

Asta with supporting stars

Two Legs Good Four Legs Better demonstrated the superiority of the canine species. We had Asta in a Thin Man feature. And then rounded off the topic with the Italian part documentary, part-feature Le Quattro Volte (2010). This has an ingenious sequence with a sheep dog, a block of wood and a van – it is very slow but worth the wait. [Note the film is as much about the dog as it is about the much-hyped goats].

The final category was Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow. This is a somewhat downbeat subject but the films have a high quotient of emotion. There was Umberto D (Italy, 1952) and the final slightly traumatic but ultimately upbeat ending. Then we had the penultimate sequence from the 2005 Lassie, beautifully shot and set in the real Yorkshire. The final clip was from Hachi (1987). This Japanese film recounts the story of a faithful dog who accompanied his master every day to the Station and then met him on his return. One day the master failed to return. So the faithful dog waited morning and evening at the Station year on year. This is a sad ending but beautifully achieved with a reassuring sense of renewal.

Hachi's statue.

Hachi‘s statue.

There was deserved applause for David Locke and his assistant who juggled 16 mm, Blu-Ray and DVD in screening the programme of film clips. Also a thank you to the Cinema Museum for hosting the event. They were happy enough to organise a follow-up, coming on Thursday April 24th. The illustrated talk will follow the example of the Golden Collar Awards. Setting right over 80 years of the Hollywood Academy [and the BAFTA’s] failing to recognise the important contribution of canine actors – The Award Goes To ….

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Rage, Uk / USA 2009.

Posted by keith1942 on April 17, 2014

Rage 1

This is an innovative and experimental film by Sally Potter. It struck me as the most unconventional of her films since Thriller (1979), screened at the beginning of the retrospective at the Bradford International Film Festival.

A young male student, Michelangelo, conducts a series of interviews with people involved in a New York Fashion Show. He uses a digital camera and films them against a backdrop of bold changing colours. We never see the young student, we just hear the comments that the interviewees make to him and the responses to his occasional questions. We are made aware, partly by explanations from the interviewees and partly by off-screen sounds, of developments in the venue and outside.

The Fashion Show does not run according to plan. A series of deaths disrupt proceedings. They also involve a police investigation and feed into demonstrations outside the venue. As the plot develops it becomes clear that some machinations are going on. What at first seems to be an ironic take on a fashion documentary gradually assumes the guise of full-blown melodrama. The film reminded me of Mike Figgis’s Timecode (2000) in its combination of the unconventional and the melodramatic. However, this film uses a rather different set of techniques.

What strikes one most of all is the skill of the acting ensemble: though they are not really an ensemble, never appearing onscreen together. They combine relatively naturalistic characterisations with a gradual racheting up of emotion as the complications in the plotline develop.

The fairly basic camerawork and sound is extremely effective. The more so as the audience start to realise that the story is going in completely unexpected directions.

The Museum also has an exhibition of Potter portraits – shot on her digital phone – of the cat in character.


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Yes, USA / UK 2004.

Posted by keith1942 on April 15, 2014


After the ‘diversion’ of The Man Who Cried Sally Potter returns to more familiar territory in terms of both production and content. The production companies include her regular support Adventure Pictures, other apparently independent producers and the UK Film Council. I had seen the film before, but second time round it seemed to me the best feature in the Potter retrospective at the Bradford International Film Festival.

Like Potter’s best films it is unconventional in a fairly distinctive way. The dialogue is delivered in iambic pentameters, sometimes rhyming sometimes not. Critical opinions were divided on this technique: however, I not only thought it worked well but that it bought an added dimension to characterisation and story.

Essentially the plot centres on an affair between ‘he’, a Lebanese doctor now working as a chef in London, ands ‘She’, a scientist of Irish American extraction. [Note the difference in upper and lower case!] The plot also involves She’s husband, an Ambassador played by Sam Neill. The couple share a god-daughter Grace (Stephanie Leonidas). And he has family in Beirut whilst She has a surviving aunt in Belfast (Sheila Hancock). Added into this is a cleaner (Shirley Henderson) who, in a typical Potter trope, addresses ironic comments direct to the camera. These comments both open and close the film. Commentary between the characters, at She’s home, in the kitchen where he works,  hint at wider political issues. These include Ant-Arab prejudice, anti-Irish prejudice, the explosive events in 2001, and the way that an amalgam of British culture and British based religion feed into values and attitudes.

As is common in Potter films one is aware of references to other films, other artworks and other cultures. Given the central plot device one instinctively thinks of William Shakespeare’s Othello. And indeed, some lines of dialogue reminded me strongly of that play. The resonances work because the cast deliver the verse with real brio. Joan Allen and Simon Abkarian are superb in this, as they are in the more physical scenes. There is one sequence, late in the film, set in an underground car park. One can imagine Shakespeare seizing such a setting with relish. This is an immensely powerful and moving sequence.

Potter is well served by her collaborators on the film – Alexei Rodionov on cinematography, Carlos Conti with Production Design, and Fred Frith working with Potter on the music. In fact, it was the visual and sound design that I remembered most vividly from the first screening.

The film also fits the Potter template with its resolution. One is waiting for a denouement that several times seems just around the next scene. But when it comes it works well, with a suitably ambiguous resolution.

Leslie Felperin gave the film a very positive review in Sight & Sound (August 2005). However, he also included the following comment: ‘Despite her occasional faults as a director (self-indulgence, humourless), feminist film-making icon Potter has always shown rare taste.’ The ‘self-indulgence’ is true to a degree – but what filmmaker elevated to the ranks of auteur is not? Certain one could apply the term to the winner of the most recent Sight & Sound poll. Alfred Hitchcock. The ‘humourlessness’ puzzled me more, I looked it up in a dictionary: not a lot of help. So I checked the Thesaurus: the alternatives on offer were ‘serious’ and ‘dull’. Potter’s films are full of wit an irony so I cannot imagine any experienced critics calling them dull. Serious, yes, but is that not a welcome alternative when so many ‘serious artists’ end up relying on mainstream finance? I do think that if critics watch too large a diet of mainstream films then it is likely to blunt their critical acumen.


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The Man Who Cried 2000.

Posted by keith1942 on April 12, 2014


This film scripted and directed by Sally Potter seems an unintentional and ironic revisiting to a sub-plot in her previous film The Tango Lesson. In that film we see the lead character [played by Potter] negotiating with Hollywood types over a film project – she finally abandons the unequal struggle.

Unfortunately she has not followed the lesson of that film. The majority of the films in the Bradford International Film Festival’s retrospective have been fine, even brilliant. This one rather lets the side down. Whilst it is a |UK/French co-production the presence of a number of Hollywood stars firmly places the film.

I had a bad feeling about this film early on. An onscreen title read ‘Russia 1927’. Now the bourgeoisie have finished celebrating the failure of the socialist revolution in the Soviet Union it seems that they want to pretend that it never happened. As far as I could make out from the limited plot and dialogue information the setting is actually in the borderlands between the young Soviet State and the new Polish State.

The main narrative follows a young Jewish girl who, after her Cantor father emigrates to the USA, is forced to flee a pogrom. She ends up in London. In the late 1930s she moves to Paris and works as a dancer. When the Nazis arrive and start rounding up Jews she flees again. This time it is to the USA where she finally finds her lost father, the man who cries at the end of the film.

The plot and characters are fairly clichéd, with occasional fanciful touches. The young Jewess Suzie is played by Christina Ricci who seemed to me out of her depth with this character. John Turturro plays an Italian opera singer Dante and Johnny Depp plays a gypsy César: both perform creditably with fairly clichéd characters. All three are outshone by Cate Blanchett as dancer and ‘gold-digger’ Lola. Harry Dean Stanton as the father Felix was probably grateful for only having two brief onscreen appearances.

The film does have high production values. And Potter displays her skills in the use of mise en scène and music. In fact the film works best as an operatic telling. Potter is also well served by the cinematographer Sacha Vierny and Production Designer Carlo Conti. Generically it falls into a cycle of films that dramatise the European holocaust. But this is an area where I think a director like Stephen Spielberg is better equipped to present in mainstream conventions. Moreover, the film lacks the edge of a feminist critique that is usually found in Potters’ work.

I hope Sally Potter, after this experience, will remain in independent productions. She is definitely skilled at narrative features, but it is in the less conventional and even unconventional telling that I feel she is most effective. Some directors, like Steve McQueen or Jane Campion, move fairly easily between the independent and mainstream worlds of the film industry. Other artists with a very distinctive approach suffer from such a movement. One thinks of filmmakers, for example Euzhan Palcy, who made striking independent films and then found their distintive voices muzzled in the mainstream.


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The Tango Lesson

Posted by keith1942 on April 11, 2014

Tango 2

The second feature from Sally Potter featured in the Bradford International Film Festival’s retrospective of her work. There are twelve tango lessons in the film, though the lessons are not merely about the Argentinean dance. In addition the main character Sally, played by Potter herself, is working on a screenplay which is a sort of murder mystery involving three models, a designer and his film crew. Whilst the film is predominately shot in black and white these sequences are shot in brighter colour. This also applies to a set of sequences where Potter is pitching the screenplay to a group of unidentified Hollywood producers. She eventually gives up the attempt when faced with the contradiction between their commercial values and her own auteuristic preoccupations,

The focus of the film is the lessons with the Argentinean tango dancer, Pablo Veron (also playing himself). These take place in Paris and in Buenos Ares. The tango is, of course, an extremely seductive dance. And the typical milieu, a slightly formal setting, usually a bar, adds to this sense. Potter trained as a dancer and eh accompanies her skilled a professional partner with real panache. The lessons are part of a bargain – she will learn the tango, he will enjoy an on-screen performance. There is also another professional performance in the film when Potter accompanies him in a professional, theatrical display.

Apparently some film critics were less than kind about Potter’s performance on the films initial release. I thought that she performs her role as a tyro dancer extremely well. In the theatrical display, whilst she performs the intricate steps skilfully, there is also a sense of stiffness and less than complete confidence. The lack of confidence reflects the changing relationship between Sally and Pablo. Theirs is an ambiguous relationship she enjoys the tango dancing but it is presented as demanding that the woman ‘do nothing’. This power relationship is subverted when Sally as film director takes the helm.

The tango m music and dances are great. The black and white cinematography, especially, is finely shot by Robby Müller. And the changing locales provide a varied and intriguing series of settings. Like Potter’s best films the exploration of gender relations and power struggles is acute and mainly subversive.

The final resolution seems rather stretched out. I have this sense with several of Potter’s film. There is the sense that she is exploring the possibilities while finishing the construction of the film. In the end the one that she settles on seems the less radical of the possibilities.

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‘Wider still and wider’.

Posted by keith1942 on April 10, 2014


After the delights and surprises of the Bradford International Film Festival we have the Widescreen Weekend. Three and half days of big screen entertainment now firmly established as a film buff’s must. The Festival offers all the major widescreen formats, 35mm anamorphic, 70mm, 2K and 4K digital theatrical projection and Cinerama.

This years programme is as varied as usual. There is a tribute to the VistaVision format with White Christmas (1954). Sadly this is a digital version. Apparently the Museum does have an old VistaVision projector but it needs major technical attention. And I am not sure how many of the originals VistaVision prints now survive. We have just faint memories and its occasional use in technical effects.

The 70mm presentations include The Big Blue (1988), Big Trouble in Little China (1986) and West Side Story (1961) and Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991). The Museum is able to project on both flat and curved screens. The latter a rare treat. The main 35mm print is For a few Dollars More (1965) in a Scope print. There is also The Way We Were (1973, a personal favourite) in the next best thing to celluloid print, 4K digital.

There are also interesting presentations and talks. There is a session by restorers on working digitally on 70mm prints. A panel will be Remembering Widescreen, with illustrations. And Christopher Frayling is coming along to talk about Sergio Leone.

The brochure [online at the Bradford Film Festival’s pages] is impressive. The programmer Duncan McGregor, provides both the original technical details of the films and those of the print or digital version being presented. This makes a pleasant contrast to many of the multiplexes where on cannot even tell if one is going to see – film, theatrical digital and video. Duncan heads an experienced team of projectionists so we will get not only memorable films but also the films presented with skill and attention.


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Triennial Review for the British Film Institute

Posted by keith1942 on April 6, 2014

An earlier filmed review

An earlier filmed review

The online notice below appeared on the bfi and DCMS WebPages on March 28th. However, I only found out when Mark Newell kindly emailed me with the information. This does seem rather typical of the bfi and government consultations. There has not exactly been a flurry of information or publicity around this. I have not found anything regarding this in Sight & Sound, which one would suppose was an obvious place to catch the attention of people interested in the work of the bfi. Now there remain only just on three weeks to send in comments. However, it does provide an opportunity to feed in comments, suggestions and complaints about this important film institution.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has launched a triennial review of the BFI.
It is a standard requirement by the Cabinet Office for all Government departments to review their agencies and non-departmental public bodies (NDPBs) at least once every three years to ensure that they are still needed and are complying with principles of good corporate governance.

The aim of this review of the BFI is two-fold:
• Stage one: to examine whether there is a continuing public need for all functions performed by the BFI and if so, to determine if the BFI should deliver them or if there is an alternative delivery model.
• Stage two: to look at the control and governance of the BFI to make sure we are complying with recognised governance principles and delivering our functions effectively and efficiently.

If you would like to take part in this review you can do so by responding to an online questionnaire. The questionnaire will remain online for four weeks, starting on Friday 28 March and finishing on Monday 28 April. The review team expects to report in the summer.
For more information about Triennial Reviews and the process, visit the Government services website.

Ways to respond
Respond online or Email to:
Write to: Department for Culture, Media & Sport
100 Parliament Street

Mark, with great promptness, has already sent in comments. He kindly agreed to let this Blog reproduce his letter. He has clearly raised some important and central issues about the bfi. Hopefully our readers will be stimulated to follow his example. I have looked through the questionaire on the DCMS site – I think letters would serve better! Anyway,  I suspect readers  will have other key issues to add. Given the paucity of information it would be a good idea to pass this information on to other interested parties. I should also note that the next meeting of the Board of Governors is fixed for April 29th: presumably to discuss the review among other matters. As Roy posted they have added more metropolitan members of the establishment to their number. However, according to the November and January minutes [posted on the bfi WebPages] they have not given any more thought to the reduction in Member Governors.

 020 8 390 19384/4/14

The Rt. Hon. Maria Miller, M.P.
Secretary of State                
Department for Culture, Media and Sport
100 Parliament Street
London SW1A 2BQ
Dear Maria Miller,
The British Film Institute
The BFI should now review as promised its new rules for the conduct of Member Governor Elections. These were introduced about three years ago and have resulted in three failed polls and finally, in 2013, in the temporary (or permanent?) removal of one of the two Member Governor posts. At the present time the Board has given no indication as to what will happen when the one remaining “regional” Member Governor’s term expires this September. Members are justifiably concerned that their views are neither heard nor properly represented.
Film enthusiasts subscribe to the BFI Southbank’s monthly guide in the main to see films that cannot be viewed elsewhere. One of the more popular themes is Archive film. In 2013 this programme strand was drastically cut to enable work to be carried out on digitisation. It should be restored as soon as possible.
Useful as the BFI Player and the Mediatheque are, they’re no substitute for seeing films on the big screen with an audience.
Yours sincerely,
Mark Newell


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