Talking Pictures

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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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Posted by keith1942 on April 5, 2014

One of the films screened as part of the Bradford International Film Festival retrospective of the work of  Sally Potter. This is a multi-industry production, taking in the UK, Russia, France and the Netherlands. But the main protagonist in the film, Orlando (Tilda Swinton) travels farther and longer than all of these combined. This is an adaptation of the novel by Virginia Woolf, which I have not read. Over four hundred years Orlando and the film travel from Elizabethan England I to Elizabethan England II. At a key moment in this journey Orlando changes gender, from a comely youth to a comely maiden: whilst apparently not ageing at all.

The film offers a series of beautiful sequences – the court of Elizabeth 1st: a C17th Russian delegation visiting the England: an ambassadorial embassy to a North African court: the C18th satirical scene: World War I very briefly and then the then contemporary UK. The mise en scène, especially the settings, decor and costumes, are finely presented. The transitions are often elliptical and ambiguous, but the connecting thread is the very fine performance by Tilda Swinton.

The narrative has both irony and an arch quality. There are recurring looks and asides from Orlando directly to the camera and the audience. When I first saw the film on its original release it struck me as a beautifully realised satire [amongst other points] on the UK Heritage film. Re-visiting it I also felt an ironic take on the films of Peter Greenaway.

There is clearly a strong feminist standpoint in the film. However, it other ways it is not noticeably political. For example, the 1740’s sequence completely ignores the great Puritan revolution. I take this to be a reflection of Woolf’s novel. And there is a similar absence in the presentation of Russia, Africa and World War I.

This was the film that first established Potter as a distinctive film voice. It remains one of her best works. She does seem to have a definite affinity for adaptation. I do feel that there are authors other than Woolf who can provide a more substantial narrative and thematic core.

The film was screened on HD-Cam, and looked pretty good. It is sad though that there is not a 35mm print of this film available.

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Early short films by Sally Potter

Posted by keith1942 on April 3, 2014



This was the opening event in a full retrospective of this filmmaker at the Bradford International Film Festival. The films varied in length between 2 minutes and 32 minutes and were filmed on various formats, including 8mm and 16mm. The Festival included a quote by Potter in a 1998 interview:

“Sally outlined the questions she implicitly considered in these early films: ‘what is film space and film time? What is the frame?” However watching the films I was also struck by a focus on bodies and movement – a preoccupation that explains why, though she says she always wanted to become a filmmaker, she also studied dance and ballet.

The programme consisted of five films. The three shortest are clearly early experiments in the medium of film. The other two are more substantial explorations of narrative worlds. The London Story (1986, colour 15 minutes) seemed to me to be a nicely produced but essentially lightweight spy story. In fact, it was the only one of the film funded by a public body, the BFI. I rather thought that said something about film funding in them UK.

Thriller (1979, black and white, 32 minutes) was a much more substantial work and really impressive in its linking of themes and style. There are two major strands in the film: the first is a series of still photographs of a performance of Puccini’s opera La Bohème in Italy in the 1930s. This accompanied by a recording of an opera performance in London in the 1950s. The second strand combined a drama and dance rendering of the opera’s plot. The setting is some sort of attic room. The performers are in contemporary dress. And the lead performer, re-enacting Mimi, is a young Afro-Caribbean woman. In the course of this we hear Bernard Herrmann’s accompaniment to the shower sequence in Psycho (1960) several times on the soundtrack. Towards the end we also hear a commentative voice that asks questions about the drama.

One question poses what would be the effect if Musidora rather than Mimi was the protagonist in the drama? This pursued only briefly. The main question suggests that Mimi’s death could be murder – hence the use of Herrmann’s score. This raises a much larger question given the predilection of modern melodrama to present the woman as victim, and therefore as an object rather than a subject.

Like much of Potter’s work the film is full of what seem to be deliberate references to cinema and to other arts. She appears to have a taste for references to Surrealism. I discerned hints of Luis Buñuel, Marcel Duchamp and Rene Magritte. I found the film both enthralling and stimulating. It also seems to illuminate preoccupations that recur in Potter’s later work. There is certainly a recurring address of issues found in Feminist theory and practice. And there is a continuing interest in what is called intertexuality – the way that cinema, and other arts, intertwine their meanings and motifs.


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The Grand Budapest Hotel, USA / Germany 2013.

Posted by keith1942 on March 27, 2014


This is the eighth film directed by Wes Anderson and it appears to have enjoyed the most lavish marketing campaign of any of his productions. I saw the trailer [about six times] at every cinema I visited over several weeks. This appears to have paid off. I have seen the film twice. Even at afternoon performances there were reasonable audiences. I saw it once at the Hyde Park Picture House and they had had over 200 in for the previous evening’s performance. I saw it a second time at the National Media Museum and they were also enjoying good audiences. On both occasions that I saw the film the audience appeared to have enjoyed the 100 minutes of entertainment. And people I spoke to afterwards were very positive about the film.

The film is An American Empirical Picture, Anderson’s own production company. It is partly funded by the Independent Indian Paintbrush, which has a long-term relationship with Anderson. And it is distributed by Fox Searchlight, which has had the rights to several of Anderson’s recent films.

This is a recognisable Anderson film. The main setting is in a created world, Mittel-Europe in the 1930s.  Appropriately the film’s production was based at the Babelsburg Studio. This created world is presented in a mainly naturalistic manner but it is no no way a realistic world. It is much closer to the Hollywood worlds of screwball comedy and the melodramas of a director like Ernest Lubitsch. The credits include a dedication to the writer Stefan Zweig. And the world in the film is as artificial as that in the adaptation by Max Ophuls of Letter from an Unknown Woman (USA 1948). But Anderson’s ironic picture is much more playful and less melodramatic that that of Ophuls.

Most reviews draw parallels with the films of Lubitsch. Whilst intriguingly a review by Edward Lawrenson (Reprinted in The Big Issue in the North) draws a parallel with the 1930s adventure films of Alfred Hitchcock, especially The Lady Vanishes (UK 1935). Anderson, like many of his contemporary filmmakers, loves to include film references and homage in his work. I was reminded at one point of the UK films, Crooks Anonymous (1962) and then of Where Eagles Dare (1969).

There are cameos by well-known actors like Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton and Harvey Keitel. And the new faces, like Ralph Fiennes as M. Gustave, are equally good at the deadpan tendency in performance elicited by Anderson.

The film style, with the emphasis on artifice and the quirky, is instantly familiar. Much of this is engineered with traditional film effects, though there is also an amount of CGI, especially in the climatic sequence. The film has the longest set of digital effect credits that I have seen in a film by Anderson. One less successful innovation is the introduction of changing aspect ratios. The contemporary opening of the film is in 1.85:1. The following introduction to the fictional Author (the older version, Tom Wilkinson) of the fictional book is 1.85:1 letter-boxed within the larger frame. The flashback when the Author (the younger version, Jude Law) has the main story recounted by Mr Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) is in 2.39:1. Whilst the actual central story is presented in 1.37:1. Some reviews give 1.33:1, but this was the main ratio of the silent era. Perhaps that accounts for a couple of reviews that erroneously suggest that the main story takes place in the 1920s. There is a clear on screen title, ‘1932’. I did not think that the variable ratios were very effective. Both projectionists I spoke to had used the 1.85:1 screen. So for much of the time the matting on the full screen surrounded the actual framed image. Indeed in some sequences with a softer focus the divide between image and matte was unclear.

I also felt that whilst the film had more outright humour than in other Anderson films, that this was at the expense of substance. My favourite film by Wes Anderson is Moonrise Kingdom (2012). Whilst I enjoyed the ironic portrayals that make up much of that film I also developed a keen interest in the fate of the characters. At one point in The Grand Budapest Hotel the anonymous Author observes a patron in the lobby suffering a stroke. As he turns to the lift he remarks that ‘it did not concern me’. I had a rather similar sense by the film‘s resolution. However, the film is vastly entertaining, it has some impressive visual and aural sequences and the cast perform with great aplomb.


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