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The BFI Governors – ‘like watching old movies’.

Posted by keith1942 on September 5, 2014

 

In Establishment clutches!

In Establishment clutches!

I have, with difficulty, been following the work of the British Film Institute’s Board of Governors. That made me feel a little like a character in an Alexander MacKendrick film: especially The Man in the White Suit (1951). You can read elsewhere details the additions of unelected members to the Board of Governors. And I have posted on its move to diminish elected representation. What this means is that the ordinary people who pay for the funding of the bfi, through taxation and the Lottery [an alternative tax] have even less say in how that money is spent. As Roy points out we have a Board dominated by people who live in London and so, unsurprisingly, London gets the lion’s share of attention and resources.

The move through election quotas to the removal of representation to the increase of unelected members hardly seems coincidental. Rather like Winston Smith (Edmund O’Brien) in the 1955 1984 the ordinary member seems caged by a bureaucratic labyrinth.

The Board seems entirely composed of members of the Establishment. This particular British many-headed hydra was declared defunct in the 1960s – a decade of great cinema and great politics. But just like the monsters in Hammer Horror [e.g. Dracula, drinking our blood or taxes] the beast returns in ever more-frightening forms.

Keeping abreast of these moves requires the brusque persistence of Inspector Halloran (John Mills) in Town on Trial (1959) as he fights a local establishment in a murder hunt. The only fairly full records are the Board minutes, though even here ‘confidentiality’ leads to redaction.  It takes three months for them to appear in public. The information on the Southbank notice board or on the members WebPages is sparse and intermittent.

The Member’s representatives [with the honourable exception of Cy Grant] appear to come from the same mould as the Peter Finch character in No Love for Johnnie (UK 1960). To be fair to Johnnie he did actually turn up and listen to the complaints of his constituents late in that film. The current remaining representative does not appear to have made any response to changes or informed his constituents on matters.

There is one possible course of response which might induce a change of direction. This is to follow the example of Mr and Mrs Lord, their children and relatives in The Happy Family (UK 1951) when faced with unresponsive bureauracrats vis-a-vis the Festival of Britain site. A chorus of ‘no’ might just occasion a rethink.

Note the next meeting of the Board of Governors is on September 24th.

Note you can contact the Board by writing to the Board of Governors and also by email. The contact should be the Board Secretary Iain Thomson. Iain Thomson@bfi.org.uk

Alternatively you, could, as I have done, write to the Secretary of State at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport who oversees the BFI and the Board of Governors: i.e. The Rt. Hon. Sajid Javid, M.P.

 

 

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Finding Vivian Maier, USA 2014

Posted by keith1942 on August 11, 2014

finding vivian maier poster

This film was screened at the Hyde Park Picture House as part of a programme titled The Female Gaze. The screening accompanied an exhibition of the work of female photographers at the Village Bookstore and Gallery, ending with a Round Table Discussion, including ‘the effectiveness of the ‘female only’ curatorial approach. The screening at the Hyde Park was introduced by Helen Grant from the College of Art & Design: briefly as there was a large audience turnout and we started a little late. There was also a post-screen discussion, again unfortunately cut short by limitations of time.

Vivian Maier was a New Yorker, of French parentage, born 1926 and died 2009. She worked most of her adult life as Nanny with various families in New York and Chicago. However, she has achieved posthumous fame because of the quality of her photographic work, unknown and little seen in her lifetime. Essentially her work falls into ‘street photography’. It is now exhibited in prestige galleries, sells as relatively expensive artwork and is compared to the work of major male and female professional photographers.

Finding Vivian Maier is written and directed by John Maloof with Charlie Siskel. Maloof also narrates the film. In 2007 Maloof, a regular at auction houses and car boot sales, bought a box of negative film for $380. Maier was still alive at this point, but possibly unaware of the sale. The items were auctioned off to cover unpaid storage costs. Maloof’s trove included thousands of photographic negatives, undeveloped rolls of black and white and colour film, and Super 8 mm and 16mm films. In the course of the film we learn that for much of her work Maier’s favoured camera was a Rolleiflex. Some of her work was developed and printed and this seems to be true of most of the 8mm and 16mm film. She does not seem to have worked at processing and developing: though one throwaway line notes that she was not good at ‘printing up photographs’.

The structure of the film is important. It opens with a series of excerpts from interviews with the families for whom Maier worked as a Nanny. It reminded me faintly of the use of interviewees in Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981): that is another film where a conventional treatment dilutes the substance of the portrait.  Maloof then recounts how he started working through his archive and researching Maier. When he commenced posting some of her photographs on the Internet he realised that her work was both of professional standard and deemed to be of quality and value. This led to exhibitions of her work in galleries and the film includes brief comments on and comparisons of the quality of Maier’s photographs.

The middle section of the film is essentially an investigation of Maier’s personal life. The combination of employment as a children’s Nanny whilst producing work that is valued as art is intriguing. Moreover, Maier was an extremely private person, even secretive. This comes out in comments by the families and from Maloof’s researches. She sometimes changed the spelling of her name – Meyer rather than Maier. She would use the pseudonym Smith quite frequently. And her personal space in the homes of the families where she worked was inviolate for her. She was also an assiduous collector, of artefacts and newspapers. In some of her moves from one employment to another she took several trunks, and numerous cases and boxes. Maloof’s trove was enlarged when one family allowed him to pick through another storage facility of items left by Maier.

As the portrait develops the film emphasises the sense of Maier as a distinctive and unusual character – the work ‘eccentric’ pops up several times, and later in the film ‘crazy’. The emphasis is on the unravelling of the ‘mystery’ of Vivian Maier. This the film fails to do, but at one point interviewees speculate that there may have been abuse, either when she was a child or an adult. The reminiscences of her performance as a carer of children are actually varied, at times almost contradictory.

We do learn about several trips that she made in the 1950s and 1960s. There were at least two visits to her ancestral village in the Champsaur Valley in the French Alps. There are photographs both of family members and of the village and its surround. This is the only occasion of which there is a record of Maier photographic work be printed and displayed. In fact she arranged for some of the photographs to be printed up as post cards and entertained the idea of some of sort of commercial activity. The other trip was a world tour in which she visited Latin America, Europe and Asia. But we did not learn much about this.

Towards the end the film returns to the issue of the status of Maier’s photographic work. She has enjoyed major and popular exhibitions in a number of cities in the USA and Europe. Her prints are now collected, selling [we are told] for about $12,000. However, it is suggested that the major art institutions are still resisting including her in the canon of photographic work.

VM06

Following the film there was a short postscript, with some comments from Helen Clark and responses from the audience. I have to say that some of the contributions got rather lost in the auditorium and I was not always completely clear about the point being made.

Helen Clark returned to a question she posed before the screening, ‘who was finding Vivian Maier’? Her comments on the film pointed up that what we were presented with was John Maloof’s search: it was his story rather than Vivian’s. She added that she had two particular worries regarding the film that disturbed her. One was the financial. Maloof was now selling Vivian’s photograph, effectively making money out of her work. This was work for which she was never paid, and in fact she was still alive when Maloof began his enterprise, though he was unaware of that.

Her second concern was the sequences where respondents in the film suggested the possibility of Vivian being abused, presumably sexually, at some time in her life. The BBFC certified the film as 12A with the note ‘infrequent child abuse references‘. As Helen pointed out these comments were all speculation, there being no evidence. In fact in the film it provides a possible explanation for her behaviour which is seen as somewhat abnormal. Helen’s final point was on the way that the film represents Vivian and her work. She felt that this personalised her work in a way that was not the norm for studies of artists, and that this was to some degree explained by Vivian being an unmarried woman.

At this point we started to get people from the audience pitching in. Several disagreed with the points about Maloof’s exploitation of the archive, proposing that he bought it and he researched it and so the entitlement followed. Someone also commented how the film dramatised the ‘dream’ of people who frequent car boots sales, uncovering a treasure trove. I think there were also some disagreements with Helen’s comment on the representation of ‘an unmarried woman, though I did not catch all of this. Given the short space of time available I did not get a sense of how the audience overall responded to the argument. I suspect we heard from more vocal members, [I confess I chipped in]. But there was certainly a section that accepted the way that the film presented its subject.

I think there are serious problems with the presentation in the film. The structure that I described above certainly provides a dominating focus on Vivian Maier in terms of personality and as something of an ‘oddball’. In fact, the factors which have propelled her into the limelight, that have made her photographs valuable artefacts, and which enabled the funding of the film are all to do with her status as a photographer and artist. But the film spends relatively little time on the aesthetics of her photographic work. There are some brief comments at the beginning and again towards the end of the film, but these are outweighed by people’s memories of her person.

The film is weak not only on the aesthetics of her work but on the technicalities. The only cameras that are specifically mentioned are the Rolleiflex and a Kodak Brownie that belonged to her mother. But I reckoned those there ware three or four different cameras that she was using over her career. There was also very little about the production side of photography. There was the one comment regarding her weakness in printing. The sense is that she did not work at the developing side of photography: which given her low income throughout her life probably explained the unprocessed negatives and undeveloped film.

The film gives only a limited sense of Maier’s work. She clearly had a gift for composition and for catching the moment. There are photographs of the families for whom she worked and of the village from which her family hailed. But the bulk of her work is what is called street photography. She tended to take pictures in working class and deprived areas. The dominant feature of her work is people, but often with an equally strong sense of their environment. She is interested in the ordinary, the everyday, the dispossessed and those who are to degree outsiders.

One senses a strong feel of empathy for her subjects; there is no sense of condescension. At the same time there is also a strong sense of reflexivity. She is very fond of shots reflecting windows and mirrors, producing classic artist’s self-portraits. The photographs are also historical records and cultural artefacts. When positioned alongside her collection of cultural objects and newspaper stories she emerges as a chronicler of the times and of the urban spaces. The films we saw did not have the same qualities. They seem much more like home movies. Maier’s forte seems to have been in ‘capturing the moment’.

1953, New York, NY

It is worth adding that she was not only an unmarred woman but also economically working class – ‘in service’. There is a strong affinity between the content of her major photographic work and her class position. That can also be seen as a factor that has led to the film and certain institutions treating her as an exception rather than as a member a member of an artistic pantheon.

With praiseworthy consideration the BBC took the opportunity to re-screen on the same evening another film on this topic – Vivian Maier: Who Took Nanny’s Pictures? transmitted in the BBC 1 Imagine series. This provides a welcome alternative treatment of the photographer. The emphasis is very much on her work and its aesthetic and social qualities. Partly because of what material the film could access the focus is on her activity in New York and Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s. John Maloof declined to participate, as he was already involved in his own film. The BBC film uses other collections of her work. There are some familiar faces from the Maloof film, but also some new ones. The treatment of the bidding and buying up of Maier collections suggests a world of cut-throat competition with a whiff of the unseemly. It is worth noting that the prices paid at the auctions were probably a lot less than the thousands of dollars that Maier had probably spent over the years on storage.

The BBC film does provide a biography, but again of a different tyre and tone. The key researcher is photography lecturer, Pamela Bannof, who has carefully researched Maier and her life. It seems that Maier’s family lived on the margins like many of her subjects. Both her mother and grandmother were in service. Her photographic career seems to have taken off when she made her first visit to the Champsaur valley: she had lived there for a few years as a child and she had some sort of fluency in French. Later when she return to New York she started serious photographic activity – early shots are cityscapes but then she homes in are what became the major theme of her work – the urban environs and people on the margins.

The film fills out some of her personal and work life. And a rather different portrait emerges. The different language used offers a sense of this – ‘recluse’, ‘very private’, and ‘rootless’. There is her work as a Nanny in New York and later in Chicago; some families called her ‘Mary Poppins with a camera’.

Bannof and other photographers comment on examples of her work. There is a greater variety than in the Maloof film. Apart from the street photography and the self-portraits there are pictures that experiment and play with pattern and form. At times there are touches with a surreal quality. We saw some brief examples of her 8mm work, which here has more social content than the examples used by Maloof. And the children in her care also turn up as subjects. She has a fine sense of portraiture, but nearly always secured in an environment that adds to the character. The use of objects and pattern is noticeable in both her self-portraits and portraits taken on the streets.

We get some technical explanations on her photographic work, including of her favourite Rolleiflex camera: one that only used 12 exposure rolls. There is an example in a gallery of a whole roll of picture, as taken in sequence. One gets a sense of how she moved from work to leisure and from the suburbs to the city downtown. It seems that she did do some processing herself, but she had to do it in her room at her workplace. It is possible that the restrictions of this and her low income preventing her developing this side of her work. We hear from a staff member at one of the camera shops that she frequented for processing. Also from a manager at a Chicago cinema where she went ‘three of four times a month’ to watch movies.

Bannof argues that whilst Maier was self-taught as a photographer she consciously studied and developed her art. There is a short from 1952 of Salvador Dali outside MOMA: at the same time as an exhibition of ‘Five French Photographers’. Presumably Maier visited this: and it seems she visited Paris and the Louvre when she made her second visit to her home village.  We also get to see more of the photographs Maier took on her year-long trip, including India, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Malaysia. As Bannof comments, this is an epic piece of travelling for a single woman in the 1950s.

vivian-maier-self-portrait-16

Other snippets emerge. One of the adults once in her care recognises a picture that she took – of Maier. Presumably questions of provenance may begin to haunt collectors and archivists. At one point we are told that Maier prints fetch about $2,000: whilst original prints from her hand fetch about $8,000. Still a tidy sum.

The film also gives a sense of the changing nature of her photographic work. One comment is that as the 1960s pass there is a growing amount if urban detritus in the pictures, less of the earlier alternative patterns. This, it is suggested, reflects the changing and deteriorating conditions of her personal life: her later employment as a Nanny was in shorter term posts: finally she was a carer for an old, disabled person. It also may reflect the social crises of the 1960s; she apparently went downtime during the Chicago riots. These changes may well relate to her apparent loss of interest in actually displaying or marketing her work.

The Round-Table Discussion at the Village Gallery offered four female speakers, an exhibition of contemporary female photographers and a discussion. The audience was overwhelmingly female and I think was also totally white. The four speakers discussed the discourse of female photography from the angles of work, exhibition and curating. Helen Clark added some comments on ‘feminist theory’ and women in visual media. Overall it was more general that just the specific films on Vivian Maier. However, Pippa Oldfield from the Impressions Gallery noted other female photographers whose work only became public after their death. One example would be Lee Miller, some of whose work went unnoticed in her lifetime, and whose legacy has been established by her son. Questions and comments bought up some other issues. This included the recent phenomenon of the ‘selfie’: I was with Helen Clark that Maier’s self-portraits are much more in line with examples in classical art than the new Internet-style pics.

In terms of the overall programme it is worth considering again the key concept, ‘The female gaze’. Helen Clark has provided some comments on a flier and on a Website. She refers to discussions around ‘the Gaze’ and specifically mentions Laura Mulvey’s ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (1975). Mulvey’s article basically employs a psychoanalytical argument, “demonstrating the way the unconscious of patriarchal society has structured film form.” Mulvey sees women as ‘caught within the language of patriarchy’, effectively complicit in the treatment of female characters on screen. Mulvey’s treatment is rather different from another writer referred to, John Berger. However, Berger offers a materialist analysis of representations, including those of women (Ways of Seeing, 1972 – as was pointed out in the discussion it predates Mulvey’s work). Art, including cinema and photography, tends to work within the limits of the dominant social mores. Thus part of women’s subordination in class society includes being the object of male action. Thus the tendency, not total, for female characters to be objectified in art and the media. I think that it is not necessary to go into the complicated and linguistically obscure arguments offered by Mulvey: Berger’s analysis shows us how representations express and re-inforce class and gender relations.

In that sense Finding Vivian Maier is ideological. That is, it gives expression to the dominant values, and even prejudices, of US capitalist society. These are values and prejudices regarding women, unmarried women, women employed as Nanny’s, and women whose behaviour is outside the accepted norms. But the film is ideological in another sense, that it fails to address the underlying social relations. Maier’s position in society is determined by her class and gender, and indeed by the cultural factors consequent on these. And her story of non-recognition followed by her growing star status refracts the relationships of intellectuals and artists to that society. Pierre Bourdieu’s offers ideas about the class-based competencies and dispositions that operate in cultural and artistic discourses (Distinction: a Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, 1986).

One comment in the BBC film saw Maier as possessing qualities that distinguish the amateur from the professional’: clearly a reference to competencies and dispositions. And Bannof suggested one could see the influence of profressional phtographers [Diane Arbus] in her early work.

Maier clearly failed to fit within such ‘competencies and dispositions’ in her lifetime, which makes her work subversive. Now, through the assistance of people who appear to be familiar with the said competencies and dispositions, her work has accessed the photographic discourse. There are innumerable instances of female and working class artists who have been censured by such discourses. Posthumously, and to a degree benefiting from modern media like the Internet, Maier has been elevated into the discourse.

At the same time there has been a limited change in the use value of her work. From being undisplayed photographs and unprocessed photographs they have become art objects with a particular cachet. Even more remarkable though is the change in their exchange value. Maloof bought the box of film for $380 dollars. We are told that one print sells for between $2,000 and $12,000. Even allowing for the process of bringing them to market this is a large surplus. Presumably in her lifetime Maier’s labour as a Nanny resulted in pay that was less than its actual value, though this has not been calculated. Since her death her unpaid labour has produced expropriation on a substantial degree. One of the contradictions of the system is that the collectors, who bought her work at auctions, likely unbeknown to her, acquired the copyright and therefore the increasing exchange value.

Appropriation runs right through this herstory. It applies to Maier’s work as a Nanny, to her activity as a photographer: not just economic appropriation but social and cultural. However, appropriation also applies to the profession of which Maier technically never became a part. From their earliest developments, both photography and cinema have appropriated the images of ordinary people. Street photography goes back to Victorian times. Both Edison and Lumière relied on filming their workers, their customers and the ordinary citizens for their products. But these ‘performances’ are not considered labour with exchange value in the way that the professional performances are. Peoples unfamiliar with these new technologies often expressed the fear at their first encounter that these machines would ‘steal their souls’. This is not just in a religion sense, but that it created alternatives forms of themselves. Photography’s apparent realism and cinematography’s addition of motion represented people in a way that was distinct from earlier art forms such as painting, sculpture and ceramics. Models for painters are as a norm paid: few subjects of photographic portraits receive payment, except in the fashion industry.

Maier’s failure or even unwillingness to display most of her work subverted this process. This does not seem to have been a wilful act on her part: she dabbled in attempts to deploy the work. But it did follow up from her working outside the artistic dispositions that dominated both mediums. Her photographs are fine example of the modern medium. But they, and the life story that now accompanies them, present intriguing critical questions about the medium itself.

 

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The Deer Hunter, USA 1978

Posted by keith1942 on August 4, 2014

The friends leaving the steel mill.

The friends leaving the steel mill.

This Academy Award winning film is being re-issued this summer. This follows on from the ‘restored’ version of Heaven’s Gate (2013), also directed by Michael Cimino. Like the later film this comes with high critical praise. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw awards five stars for what he terms a film with ‘anti-war imagery’. However, Andrew Briton, in a major article on Hollywood’s Vietnam movies (Sideshows: Hollywood in Vietnam, Movie issue 27/28) makes the point that

The ‘anti-war’ film tends to protest against war as such from an abstractly moral point of view …war is extrapolated for its socio-economic causes and functions, and we are confronted with its ‘horrors’ –.

It is this mis-reading [ideological in the proper sense of the word] that is made in The Guardian review. There is a complete absence, as in so much critical writing on film, of any sense of the ‘socio-economic’.

But actually this film is far worse than merely ‘anti-war’. It has as reactionary a viewpoint as the more frequently lambasted The Green Berets (1968). That film has at least the merit of being explicit in its right-wing views: merely transferring the racist treatment of Native Americans in westerns to the war in Vietnam. The Deer Hunter masquerades as a liberal critique whilst not only justifying the colonial war and the war crimes of the USA but vilifying the Vietnamese with racist stereotypes.

The film is effectively divided into three parts: an opening act set in the steel town of Clairton  Pennsylvania, which runs for over an hour. The second act, running about 40 minutes, is set in Vietnam. And the final act is back in Clairton but with another short venture to Vietnam, to Saigon just before the US flight. The film’s plot revolves around a group of friends, the members being Michael (Robert de Niro) and Nick Christopher Walken), along with Stevie (John Savage) all about to leave for service in Vietnam: the group’s oddball Stan (John Cazale) plus Axel (Chuck Aspegreen), all of these work in the local steel mill: Linda (Meryl Streep) Nick’s girlfriend, and Angela (Rutanya Alda) pregnant and about to marry Stevie: and John (George Dzundza) who runs a local bar where the friends regularly socialise.

The first part of the film, set in an ‘ethnic Ukrainian’ working class community in Clairton, a Pennsylvanian steel town, is frequently praised. But as Britton argues cogently in his article

the film relies on its inert reiteration of the appearance of concreteness – its ‘naturalism’ to camouflage the fact that its community is an abstraction, which can only be arrived at, and come to serve the end which it does serve, through systematic mystification.

It can be added that the settings, steel works, ethnic churches and celebrations, misty mountains – all lend themselves to high-value and costly production design and cinematography: and the film enjoys the services of one of the outstanding cinematographers Vilmos Zgismond. Clairton is a construction from eight different locations: Thailand stands in for Vietnam, though the film does use actual footage of the US evacuation: and some of the close-ups use back projection.

The mystification is served by the use of star power. De Niro, Walken and Streep, in particular, bring personas associated with their ability to create ‘authentic characters’. Intriguingly in the subsequent film Heaven’s Gate, we once again are presented with ethnic migrants, but on this occasion they are not served by star performers. In both cases, as Briton argues, ethnicity enables the filmmaker to avoid the fundamental issue of class.

If the real relations of class escape the film so do those of gender. Briton points out that the first hour of the film is dominated by two rituals – the female ritual of the wedding and the male ritual of the hunt. However, male rituals take precedence. As in other Cimino films [Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, 1974 and Heavens Gate) the central focus is the friendship between men – a buddy movie.

The Clairton act also contains premonitions that look forward to later in the film. At the wedding of Stevie and Angela, Michael and Linda exchange a look and a smile. At the subsequent reception Michael, Stevie and Nick attempt to question a Green Beret Vietnam veteran, whose only response is ‘Fuck it!’ Then, in one of several ethnic rituals, Stevie and Angela drink from double entwined cups, but red drops of wine fall [un-remarked] on Angela’s wedding dress. After the reception Nick makes Michael promise ‘Don’t leave me over there’ [Vietnam]. One of the most emphatic motifs in the film, is the ‘one shot’ endlessly preached by Michael. This is first played out with a stag on a mountaintop and repeated in variations several times later in the film.

The second act in Vietnam is, as Bradshaw concedes,

just as much fantasy as Francis Ford Coppola’s Wagner-fueled helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now (1979).

With a powerful ellipsis, the film cuts directly from Clairton to a battle scene in Vietnam. What one presumes is supposed to be a Vietcong soldier casually drops a grenade into a pit of women and children. He is subsequently torched by Michael with a flame-thrower. This serves as a warning that the film intends to completely invert the violence and responsibility in Vietnam. We are back to the inversion typical of the classic western.

Much of the act is taken up with the imprisonment of Michael, Nick and Stevie in a brutal riverside containment by the Vietcong. They pass their time by inflicting the game of Russian Roulette on the prisoners, and betting on the outcome. Michael is able to subvert the game to effect their escape.

Michael and Nick 'play' roulette.

Michael and Nick ‘play’ roulette.

The Guardian response is

The Deer Hunter has been criticised for this literal inaccuracy and showing Vietnam in terms of American victimhood. But for me, those macabre Russian roulette sequences stunningly proclaim war to be dehumanising and arbitrary.

The use of ‘literal’ is typical of bourgeois discourse where there are one set of terms for the oppressors – powerful states like the US – and a different and negative set for the oppressed – like Vietnam [or currently Palestine]. The film’s use of this ‘game’ is downright mendacity. The reports of such torture were by US military inflicted on Vietnamese: along with various other war crimes including dropping them alive from flying helicopters. And, of course, in typical Hollywood war film fashion, the ‘Yankee hero’ is able to outsmart and out fight the enemy. It is worth noting that by the end of the film, there are more dead Vietnamese than there are dead Yankees. Bradshaw also writes that:

The idea of sacrifice permeates everything, along with the cruelty and horror.

But the sacrifice, like the violence, is extremely one-sided.

Towards the end of this act the three friends are separated, but in another script plant Michael and Nick nearly meet up at a covert Saigon gambling den – gambling on an another game of Russian Roulette.

The final act again runs about an hour, though it includes a twenty-minute return to Vietnam. Returning to Clairton Michael starts to develop a relationship with Linda: Nick is AWOL and seemingly lost. Michael learns that Stevie has had both his legs amputated and is confined in a Veteran hospital. The traumas from Vietnam are demonstrated when on another hunting trip Michael’s ‘one shot’ philosophy is shown to be neutered.

Michael returns to Saigon now in chaos as the US military prepare to ‘abandon ship’. Saigon, as in the earlier act, is a noir world, full of shadows, neon signs, death and destruction. The femme fatale of the film turns out to be the same Russian Roulette game – with Nick as the victim hero and Michael as the seeker hero. Inevitably Michael returns to the US with Nick in a casket.

In the final movement of the film we are back in Clairton for Nick’s funeral. Stevie has been rescued from the hospital by Michael and is attempting to rebuild his life and marriage. After the burial the group of friends return to John’s bar – their regular haunt throughout the film. As they prepare a breakfast wake John, cooking in the kitchen, starts to hum ‘God Bless America’: It is taken up in faltering fashion by the others and gradually it strengthens in to unified singing. The film ends on a freeze frame of the group toasting to Nick’s memory seated in the bar.

Toast

Robin Wood sees The Deer Hunter as

the culmination of and elegy for a whole tradition of American cinema and American mythology.

The comments repeat the dubious convention in US English of equating the United States with two whole continents and 22 states. But it also misreads the film. In this film and in Heaven’s Gate Wood suggests that the films explore the diminishing viability of the US hero on film. One film he uses as comparison is The Searchers (1955). In that film Ethan Edwards at the close has to leave the community for the wilderness. But in The Dear Hunter Michael actually outwits and defeats the Vietcong. As a seeker hero he survives where the victim hero, Nick, fails. He returns Stevie to family and community. And the final camera shots of Michael and Linda suggests a resumption of their relationship – he wins the girl. He has been reintegrated into the community. In the context of the film’s representation of the USA and Vietnam, the final rendering of ‘God Bless America’ seeks to recoup the historic defeat there. Re-watching the film I was reminded of the apt line in A Fish Called Wanda (1988): Otto (Kevin Kline) is taunted by Archie (John Cleese), ‘You lost in Vietnam!’, to which he responds ‘It was a draw!’

Andrew Britton, having emphasised the social-economic, continues his analysis in terms of the film’s ’homo-erotic subtext’.

The function of the Russian Roulette game is to solve the problem of the American hero by transposing the dubious aspects of his authority to the Vietcong, whose role in the power-structure of the game is analogous to Mike’s in the hunt. By the very token of this symbolic link between them, the Vietcong also appear as displaced manifestations of repressed sexual desire …[between Michael and Nick].

Andrew Britton’s and Robin Wood’s comments are influenced by their being gay and their interest in psychoanalytical criticism. But purely at a surface level, accessible to audiences unfamiliar with either, Michael and company are the ‘good guys’ and the Vietnamese are ‘the bad guys’. Notably, the European involved in the Saigon Roulette den is French. Films like The Green Berets, and to lesser extent Apocalypse Now, ignore history and indulge in cinematic fantasy. More radically, The Deer Hunter takes history or a seemingly naturalised recreation and inverts it for similar purposes.

Bradshaw also comments,

A simple much-forgotten fact slaps you in the face after watching The Deer Hunter. Vietnam was different to Iraq and Afghanistan in one vital respect: the soldiers were drafted. They had no choice.

In fact, I don’t think the draft gets a single mention in the film. And Michael, Nick and Stevie are all itching to go: the war appears to them as an extension of their hunting sport. One could also point out that the methods used by the US administration to keep up military numbers in both Iraq and Afghanistan were just as coercive as the draft. But most importantly, the Vietnamese people had no choice either. They were drafted into war by French colonialism, Japanese expansionism and finally by US neo-colonialism. As in Cimino’s later Year of the Dragon (1985) the representations of Asians are racist. The Vietcong are brutal and mindlessly violent: ordinary Vietnamese are passive victims: and many of the urban Vietnamese dwellers cater to the worse excesses of the occupation: and not in a single instance is their dialogue accorded translation in subtitles. For this film ‘oriental life is cheap’.

Rather than an ‘anti-war’ film The Deer Hunter is an ‘anti-losing the war’ film.

 

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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!

Afterthought:

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 DEMON

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

laSSIE

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

Yes USA

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

The-Man-Who-Cried-2000-

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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