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Nineteen Eighty-Four: Adaptations and Reformulations of Orwell’s Novel

Posted by keith1942 on December 25, 2017

The grim futurist vision in Orwell’s famous novel would seem not to have come to pass. Even though, thirty years further on from the titular date, we still have not suffered the dystopia he envisaged, the book remains a potent and influential text. Orwell’s novel reflected a host of influences: his early life and preparatory school: his experience of the depression in the 1930s: his experience of sectarianism, the suppression of anarcho-syndicalist organisations in Barcelona in 1937: his experience of the destruction and scarcity of the war years: his time at the BBC and his experience of its bureaucracy: his readings and knowledge of events both in the Soviet Union of the 1930s, including Arthur Koestler’s ‘Darkness at Noon’ (1940), and of the Fascist dictatorships in the 1920s and 1930s: and writing the novel in the post-war world of rationing and the ‘cold war’.

There is also the influence of the earlier novel by Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (1931), though this book relies on hedonistic addiction rather than brutal surveillance. A stronger influence would be the Soviet novel We (Мы)  a dystopian story by Yevgeny Zamyatin completed in 1921. There are many plot cross-overs though Yevgeny’s novel is set farther in the future in an advanced technological society.

Orwell’s vision is bleak and pessimistic. He subscribes to the notion of a totalitarian state. And as is common with that concept he elides the political economy of his society. Whilst it offers some version of socialism it also appears to operate under a system of commodity production and exchange.

The book has been adapted into plays, radio plays [including ‘The Goons’], for television [including the trivial Room 101]; into an opera and even a ballet; the last impressed me more than I expected. Predictably there are also television and film feature length versions: some attempt a literal translation others involve influence or reformulation.

The BBC broadcast an adaption in 1954: CBS had already broadcast a US Network version in 1953. The BBC production was written by Nigel Kneale, a key figure in television science fiction. It was directed by Rudolph Cartier who was a seminal figure in early British television drama. The production was recorded in a studio with filmed inserts. The dominance of close-ups and fairly bare television sets works to generate a real sense of paranoia appropriate to the book. This version closely follows the book though some sections are elided, as for example with the exterior sequences in the ‘prole’ area. We do get the INGSOC slogans, examples of Newspeak and references to the critical work of Emmanuel Goldstein. However, the long analysis in Orwell’s book from this source is missing. The film does essay the brutal interrogations inflicted by O’Brien and the final defeatist sequence. Peter Cushing as Winston and André Morell as O’Brien stand out in a strong cast.

In 1956 Holiday Film Productions filmed the novel in the UK at the Elstree Studio, including using London locations. This is an inferior version to the BBC production. The translation to the screen cuts down on the novel, much of the plot is there but the discussions of the politics and values of Oceania are missing as is the analysis of Goldstein. One addition is Winston demonstrating to the Telescreen in his flat that he is not carrying any forbidden items. Names are changed, O’Brien becomes O’Connor and Goldstein becomes Kalador. The film was a tool in the Cold War. The United States Information Agency provided about a third of the budget. The emphasis of the film is the ‘Red Menace’. An introductory title tells us it is not science fiction but set ‘in the immediate future’. At the film’s end a voice over enjoins that this fate await our children if we ‘fail to preserve our heritage of freedom’. The film was shot in London and aims for a realistic narrative giving a contemporary feel. Some of this is very well done and evocative. There are two striking shots in particular. One, of feet ascending steps in Trafalgar Square, seems [wittingly or unwittingly] to invert the famous shots from Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925). And, near the end, there is a striking overhead shot of Winston as he stands before a large poster of Big Brother. In fact there were two endings. The one for the US market closely followed the book. However, for the UK,

“It seems that the BBC flap prompted Columbia Pictures, the distributors, to shoot two endings, one faithful to the novel and the other more hopeful.” (Tony Shaw, 2006).

1984 (1956)
Directed by Michael Anderson
Shown: Edmond O’Brien

Similar influences lay behind the 1954 adaptation of Orwell’s other dystopian fable, Animal Farm. The animation by Joy Batchelor and John Halas is excellent but the film strays from Orwell’s original in ways that parallel the Holiday Film 1984. There are also several television films of this novel. I did wonder if the CBS television version of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ had a similar provenance.

Then in the actual year of 1984 Virgin Cinema Films produced a version, set in London and filmed in the locations listed in the book and in the time-frame of the book (April to June) and adhering Orwell’s original title. It opens with an onscreen quotation from the book,

“He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”

The film was scripted by Michael Radford with added material by Jonathan Gems and directed by Michael Radford. The two key characters are John Hurt as Winston and Richard Burton as O’Brien. Hurt is aptly cast, Burton never quite achieves O’Brien’s Machiavellian persona. But the major problem is the scripting. The film emphasizes the subjective viewpoint of Winston Smith. Some of this, like the diary with an internal voice, is very effective, as are flashbacks to Winston’s childhood. The book’s analysis is only briefly presented. At one point Winston reads to Julia from Goldstein’s book the passage about war, but little else. Oddly when Winston visits O’Brien [alone] the latter is not explicit about claiming to be part of the undergrounds. Even more oddly there are a series of ‘dream’ sequences which involve a door marked ‘101’ opening onto a green but artificial landscape bathed in sunlight. At various points the landscape includes Winston, Winston and Julia, Winston and O’Brien and all three: plus one shot where it is empty. Room 1001 is one of the memorable inventions in Orwell’s book, the site of the ultimate torture and mind-bending experience. But what exactly these ‘dream’ sequences’ were meant to suggest is not really resolved though they obviously provide an opposition to the actual Room 101 and stress Winston’s subjective stance. Perhaps they relate to the final ambiguous shot of Winston, face screwed up, mumbling ‘I love Big Brother’.

The sound and vision of the film is effective. The production design presents a sort of grunge war-time Britain. This is shot with great skill by Roger Deakins, director of photography and camera operator. And the Eastman film stock received special processing to achieve the desaturated look. But the story within this feels rather hollow and never achieves the grim dystopian feel of the book.

Released only a year later Brazil (UK 1985) is in many ways the most brilliant of  cinematic rendering of Orwell’s novel. It is directed by Terry Gilliam, combining his usual surrealist touches with sardonic often macabre humour and a wishful romanticism. The script, by Gilliam, Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown is witty though the narrative does fly off at tangents at times. The design, cinematography and special effects are all excellent and contribute to making this bizarre dystopia believable. The basic modus operandi of the film is to invert just about every aspect of the Orwellian original. So whilst the literary Winston might seem to be driven by a search for father figures this protagonist, Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), is mother fixated. In fact his romantic ideal, Jill Layton (Kim Greist), seems at times interchangeable with his mother Mrs Ida Lowry (Katherine Helmond): there is even a brief visual reference to Vertigo (1958). The dystopia is a world of bureaucratic ministries gone mad, driven by control freaks and obsessed with covering over errors. The war is replaced by faceless urban terrorists. The surveillance and policing is overbearing but also fails to achieve its objectives.  The buildings are grandiose but the technology is constantly breaking down and operating incorrectly. The slogans are less frequent, also inverted, but just as disturbing,

“Truth is Freedom.”

It is also a capitalist society based on commodity production.

This film has the familiar look of Gilliam’s style: I was especially taken with a automated surveillance machine that acted rather like an eager puppy. There is a brief visual reference to Potemkin, [playing with the 1956 version?] Like its immediate predecessor, and typical of Gilliam’s work, the film offers a series of fantasy/dreams. These offer alternative romantic and upbeat sequences to the dystopian world. And, unlike the preceding Ninety Eighty-Four, they come together at the conclusion to offer resolution between the subjective and objective worlds in the film. That conclusion plays intriguingly with that in Orwell’s novel. The film repeatedly offers sequences that are as brutal and downbeat as the novel. And, like Orwell, Gilliam and his team come up with original and distinctive images and motifs. Hapless victims are trussed in metal tagged sacks for torture. The site of this is Room 5001. But the ‘brainwashed’ or ‘unthinking populace’ are not central except in the brutally realistic terrorist acts.

A slightly earlier science fiction film is an example of influence rather than transposition, Blade Runner (1982). We have replicants instead of proles or perpetrators of ‘thought crime’. But we do have the intrusive surveillance in what is clearly another dystopia. And the impressive design of this film also harks back to Orwell.

“The Ministry of Truth … was startlingly different from other objects in sight. It was an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete, soaring up, terrace after terrace, three hundred meters into the air.” (‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, Orwell).

Intriguingly the original release version also contained the much criticised flight by Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) and Rachael (Sean Young) from the city to a green landscape. This parallels the setting presented [dreamlike] at the end of Brazil and it is similar to the dreams of Hurt’s character, Winston, in his subjective version of Room 101. In the book green countryside is the site of Winston’s and Julia’s first tryst and initial sexual acts. Otherwise Orwell’s book is resolutely urban, conjuring up the traditional opposition between the urban and the rural that is a central trope in traditional melodrama.

That is also a trope in another dystopian film, Logan’s Run (1976): though that film seems to be more influenced by Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’. That would also be true of the far better science fiction film Gattaca (1997). Fahrenheit 451 (1966) is probably influenced by both but the idea of firemen who burn books and an underground dedicated to memorising forbidden texts appears to be a riposte by the original author Ray Bradbury to Orwell.

There are indeed many other films that offer examples of the influence of Orwell’s classic. Dark City (1998) has another dystopia, somewhat removed from the world described by Orwell, but whose hero suffers the problem of rediscovering the actual past whilst an underworld power controls to a degree how people perceive. This is one among a number of suggestions on the Web by fans of the novel and its numerous re-interpretations. Robert Harris, the novelist, regards ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ as the most influential novel in modern writing. His books reflect this, as do film versions such as Fatherland (1994) and his screenplay for The Ghost Writer (2010).

And the cycle will probably continue, a

‘Romantic’ new version of 1984 planned with Kristen Stewart’ (Yahoo Movies in 2016).

seems to have fallen by the wayside. It is a sign of how Orwell’s nightmare vision has gripped the popular imagination that artists continually return to his classic novel. It seems that ‘Big Brother’ and ‘Room 101’ will be with us for many years to come.

There are many articles and books and Web postings on Orwell and ‘1984’. Especially useful for Film Studies is Tony Shaw, 2006 – British Cinema and the Cold War The State, Propaganda and Consensus, I. B. Tauris, London and New York. This article was originally  written for the Media Education Journal, Issue 60, which celebrated the magazine which first appeared in 1984. It seemed a nice touch to write about Orwell’s now famous year.

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La Bête Humaine., France 1938

Posted by keith1942 on December 12, 2017

 

The novel is part of Émile Zola’s great fictional series, Les Rougon-Macquart. This chain of novels takes its title from the two families who are the subject of the stories. The Rougons are bourgeois in the French sense, what in the UK is colloquially refereed to as upper middle class. The Macquarts are rural poor and become urban working class. The stories are set in the second Empire; that fairly reactionary regime lorded over by Louis-Napoleon. Zola’s approach belongs to the new naturalism of the later nineteenth century, very detailed and realistic portrayals, which the author equated with the work of experimental scientists.  Zola’s political stance tended towards socialism, but he was also strongly influenced by recent environmental and hereditary studies.

These conflicting factors can be seen at work in La Bête Humaine. The novel has very detailed and convincing passages on the industry and its workers. One fine chapter, which has not made it into any of the film adaptations that I have seen, recounts a hazardous and arduous train journey through snow and blizzards. Many of the motivations of the characters arise from the social relations in which they are trapped. Yet the central character, Jacques Lantier, [the offspring of the two main protagonists in L’Assommoir], is in the grip of a violent obsession, which the author attributes to genetic factors, ‘and bad blood’.

Film Adaptations.

As might be expected Zola has been a popular source for film versions. L’Assommoir appears to have provided the basis for a 1902 short film. And there were other early adaptations by filmmaker as prominent as D. W. Griffith [A Drunkard’s Reformation 1909] and Victor Sjöström [Germinal, 1913]. The 1913 French adaptation of the same novel by Albert Capellani runs for 147 minutes. It is distinguished by its use of actual locations and a strong identification with the striking miners. It struck me as more political than the Zola original.

In 1918 there was a silent version of La Bête Humaine. And in the 1920s another Germinal, and versions of Nana, Therese Raquin and L’Argent. With the arrival of sound further film versions of some of these novels were produced. And from the 1930s until the present day Zola remains a popular source, with a new Germinal in the 1990s and Nana in 2002. The most recent versions of La Bête Humaine appear to have been in the 1950s.

1930s.

Despite the International dominance of Hollywood French film was relatively successful in this period, [more so than British film]. In the late 1930s there were a series of films that were successful at the domestic box office and garnered high praise from critics. A key cycle of films was known as Poetic Realism. This cycle shared some characteristics with the later Hollywood film noir.  The settings were associated with criminality, and the use of light and shadow created a world of darkness and danger. Two key filmmakers in this cycle were the scriptwriter Jacques Prévert and the director Marcel Carné. One of their finest collaborations is Quai des Brumes (Port of Shadows, 1938). An army deserter arrives in Le Havre. He is adopted by a stray dog, falls in love with an orphan girl, and crosses the leader of a local criminal gang. The tragic ending is clearly foreshadowed in the settings, all shadows and mist. The star is Jean Gabin. He provides a strong sense of romantic fatalism, which characterised this and the other poetic realist films. The endings are uniformly tragic, unlike the Hollywood film noir, where the films sometimes lead to death [e.g. Double Indemnity, 1944] but just as often the hero wins through [On Dangerous Ground, 1951].  In the Quai des Brumes the hero is led on by a fatal romance, but the heroine is romantic. In French noir there tends to be less emphasis on the heroine as duplicitous and dangerous, again different from the femme fatale in film noir.

‘Quai des brumes’

Jean Renoir

Renoir is one of the most renowned film directors in French Cinema, indeed across World Cinema. His father was the famous Impressionist painter. The young Jean entered French filmmaking in the 1920s, still the era of silent films. One of his early films was an adaptation of Zola’s novel Nana [1926]. A slum girl rises to become a demimondaine [a woman outside respectable society]. I feel that the film fails because Catherine Hessling [who plays Nana] does not bring the character alive or make her believable.

In the sound era Renoir directed a film version of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. It is far closer to the book than the Hollywood version, both in plot and in its view of Emma Bovary. However, it suffered because the producers did not allow Renoir to make the full versions that he desired. One important film of his in this period is Toni [1935]. A story set among Italian migrants, the film was an early example of location filming and the use of non-professionals. It was an important influence on the later Italian neo-realist movement.

Like many artists and intellectuals Renoir was extremely sympathetic to the Popular Front, which won the French elections in 1936. He directed La Marseillaise, a film about the original revolutionary volunteers from Marseilles in 1789. It was partly funded by trade unions and subscriptions. Prior to this he had also made Le Crime de Monsieur Lange [1935), partly a thriller, it is set in a workers print co-operative. This is one of his finest films and has a powerful sense of community and co-operation.

The overt class-conscious themes in these films weaken in the late 1930s. La Bête Humaine, whilst it has a strong sense of industry and the world of work has little evidence of co-operation. In fact it shares the pessimism that seemed so central to the poetic realist cycle. It is a pessimism that is one powerful strand in his later masterpiece, La Regle du Jeu (1939). That film so angered audiences that the prints were cut, then withdrawn and finally banned. The film was later restored in the 1950s and gained a reputation as one of the all-time great films. It is worth noting that both La Bête Humaine  and La Regle du Jeu were both banned under the German occupation.

La Bête Humaine (The Human Beast). France 1938.

Director Jean Renoir Scenario Jean Renoir based on the novel by Zola Photography Curt Courant Art Direction Eugène Lourié Music Joseph Kosma Editor Marguer­ite Renoir. Cast Jean Gabin, Julien Car­ette, Fernand Ledoux, Jean Renoir, Si­mone Simon, Jenny Hélia, Blanchette Brunoy. Production Paris Films. 99 minutes. Black and white.

“Lantier (Gabin), a railway mechanic and hereditary alcoholic, is pushed into crime. He becomes the lover of Séverine (Simon), who wants him to kill her hus­band, Roubaud (Ledoux), himself a criminal, but he ends by strangling her.

Renoir, after the unmerited failure of La Maseillaise (1937), agreed to make this film because Gabin very much wanted to play a railway worker. He had less than vague memories of the novel, which is far from being one of Zola’s best, and is one in which the three pro­tagonists are modern Atridae [classical Greek reference], whose heredity condemned them to worse crimes. With some hesitation he rejected an adaptation by Roger Martin Du Gard that concluded with the declaration of war in August 1914, and finally himself wrote a scenario that mainly retained “a love story of the railroads” from the ori­ginal novel.

The opening sequence showing, in a doc­umentary style, the Paris-Le Havre run seen from a train, is a masterpiece of editing and perfect simplicity. It is comparable to another sequence, less impressionistic but still very beautiful, showing the life of the migrant railway workers. In this way, Renoir depicted Lantier’s social milieu by showing him at work. His impulse to murder is power­fully but quietly expressed in the brief scene showing his desire to kill a woman (Brunoy) who had given herself to him while a train was passing. Later, the drama becomes more involved and three sequences are equally admirable: the killing committed by Roubaud in an ex­press; the attempt to kill him in the noc­turnal setting of the railway tracks; the final strangling of Séverine, intercut with a railway workers’ fair, while a voice on the soundtrack sings a turn-of-the-­century ballad.

“I try to discover the unity of action before considering the unity of place and time,” wrote Renoir. La Bête Humaine is far superior to La Grande Illusion and was far from being a commercial failure. [It apparently did well internationally including in the USA. There it was one important influence on the film noir cycle]. However, some critical attacks hampered its success. M. Vinel (Rebatet), though he did not deny the qualities of the film, set the pattern in L’Action Fran­çaise: “In politics, Renoir is out of the same Jewish-Democratic lineage as Zola. We hope we will not see him again in the miry rut of the class cinema.”

The acting is of exceptional quality. It is one of Gabin’s great roles and Carette responds intelligently to his performance. Simone Simon is a Séverine of tragic proportions, while Ledoux, as the callous Roubaud, is remarkable.” (Georges Sadoul in his Dictionary of Films, 1965, translated by Peter Morris).

Renoir on La Bête Humaine

“Those first-hand railway shots were in any case highly dangerous. The State Railways had lent us ten kilometres of track on which we could run and stop the train as we pleased. We hitched a platform truck, carrying the lighting generator, to the locomotive, and behind this an ordinary coach which served as a make-up and rest-room for the actors between scenes. When I decided to shoot with these hindrances I encountered lively opposition. It was pointed out to me that mock-ups had been perfected to the point where it was impossible to tell them from first-hand shooting. But I was unshakable in my belief in the influence of the setting on the actors, and fortunately I won the day. Gabin and Carette could never have played so realistically in front of an artificial background, if only because the very noise forced them to communicate by means of ges­tures.

The cameramen were Curt Courant and my nephew, Claude Renoir. Curt Courant was a skinny little man, a real featherweight. He was always in danger of being carried off by the wind which blew like the devil through that rushing studio and more than once I had to grab hold of him to prevent him being swept away. Claude had attached a small platform to the side of the locomotive which he occupied with his camera. The camera stuck out a little too far and was knocked off at the entrance to a tunnel; but Claude hung on and came through unscathed.

La Bête Humaine strengthened my longing to achieve poetic realism. The steel mass of the locomotive became in my imagination the flying carpet of oriental fable. Zola, from the depths of the grave, gave me powerful assistance. His novels are filled with wonderful passages of popular poetry. For example, Séverine and Jacques Lentier [Lantier] have arranged to meet in the Square des Batignolles. It is their first meeting. Jacques Lentier is so moved that he cannot utter a word. Séverine says with a faint smile, `Don’t look it me like that, you’ll wear your eyes out.’ A trifle, but it had to be thought of. The setting of locomotives, railroad sidings and puffs of steam had furnished me with that poetry or rather had supplied it to the actors and enabled them to get into the skin of their parts better than any amount.”  (My Life and My Films by Jean Renoir, translated by Norman Denny. Da Capo, 1974).

There is a Hollywood version of the Zola novel, Human Desire [1954}. The film was produced at the Columbia Studio, and directed by German émigré Fritz Lang. The stars are Glen Ford, Gloria Grahame and Broderick Crawford. Given this was the 1940s and the period of the Hays Code, it is unsurprising that the adaptation diverges in important ways from the novel.

Notes for a course on European literature on Film.

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Two Post-Franco Political Thrillers From Spain

Posted by keith1942 on December 5, 2017

These films were part of a programme of ‘States of danger and deceit’ produced by the Manchester HOME together with the British Film Institute. Much of the programme was screened at the recent Leeds International Film Festival. Most of the titles were on digital but these two were shown in their original film formats. Both films were interesting because they were produced in the period between the death of General Franco in 1975 and the attempted military coup by fascist elements in the army in 1981. In this period there was a gradual move towards a western capitalist style democratic government, [‘La Transición’]. Because of the competing social movements the progress was slow. It was only in 1977 that the Communist Party of Spain [Partido Comunista de España] was legalized and Trade Union laws liberalised.

El diputado / The Deputy  (1978),  was written and directed by Eloy de la Iglesia  from a story by Gonzalo Goicoechea. The main character, Roberto Orbea (José Sacristán), is an elected Congressman in the Spanish Cortes. He is a member of the opposition party, though in the film this is unclear if it is meant to be the Socialist Party of Spain [Partido Socialista Obrero Español] or the Communist Party of Spain: the dialogue frequently references ‘communist’ but the organisation looks closer to socialist,.

Roberto is either homosexual or bi-sexual. He is married but becomes involved with a ‘rent boy’ and then with an underage gigolo, Juanito (José Luis Alonso). Same-sex relationships were only legalised in 1979 with the age of consent set at sixteen. The film  presents a series of flashbacks, most of which are ‘remembered’ by Roberto as he is driven to the Party Congress where he is expected to be elected Secretary. The earliest occurs during the Franco regime when Roberto, involved in underground activities, is caught and interrogated by the secret police. His interrogation leads to him being hospitalised where he meets Nes (Ángel Pardo). After his release he commences homosexual acts with him: and then is introduced to Juanito. Over this period ‘La Transición’ commences so Roberto’s affair, which is passionate and obsessive on his part, offers the opportunity for blackmail by a shadowy right-wing group.

The film struck me as more interested in the homoerotic aspects of the story than in the political. In fact, the director, is a ‘gay socialist’. The film spends much of its time on the homosexual relationships with a number of explicit sequences. It would appear to have taken advantage of the liberalisation of the period.

Roberto’s character is well played but I found his actions somewhat unconvincing. He seems incredibly naïve for a man who had worked in an underground organisation and is set to become a national political leader. My colleague Roy Stafford suggested that

” I think we have to accept that Roberto genuinely loves Juanito and can’t let him go…”.

He also included a reference to the British film Victim (1961) which offers an interesting comparison.

I remain sceptical. Apart from Roberto’s naivety the dialogue relating to politics, and especially to Marxism, are fairly simplistic. I think this is part of the film’s predominant interest in sexuality rather than political.

Another limitation of the film is Roberto’s wife Carmen, who is aware of his homosexual activities and goes along with them. Carmen (María Luisa San José) is a seriously underdeveloped character. The film does not really explore her situation or motivation. Later in the film and the relationships Juanito becomes a regular participant of the family, i.e. Roberto and Carmen. He is treated almost like an adopted son and we are told is introduced to friends as a relative.

Junaito’s feelings for Roberto are ambiguous but there does seem to be a growing affection on his part. Together with Roberto and Carmen he indulges into their more affluent life style and, interestingly, attends rallies and demonstration by the Party. He does co-operate with the group attempting to black mail Roberto. But late in the film he turns and refuses co-operation which leads to the climactic sequence.

As the film progresses the motivation for the flashbacks becomes ambiguous. At least one involving the ‘family’ appears to come from Carmen. And one involving the blackmailers would seem to come from Juanito. There are other flashback to the blackmailers which Roberto would not seem to know about, but it is likely these are conjectures by him. As far as the sexual activity goes there is one sequence where we start to see a ménage á trois between Carmen, Juanito and Roberto. The scene is cut just as it becomes risqué, indicative of the film’s primary focus on the homoerotic.

There is an interesting class dimension to the film. Roberto and Carmen are probably best described as petty-bourgeois. Juanito is from a working class background whilst Nez would seem to be part of the lumpen-proletariat. And the blackmailers are from the bourgeoisie proper. Juanito is inducted into the higher social class. This crosses over with Victim where the protagonist, Melville Farr  (Dirk Bogarde) is also a lawyer and of a similar class to Roberto whilst his homosexual lover, Barrett (Peter McEnery) seems to be working class. However, in the British film the two class worlds are kept strictly separate. Moreover, Barrett is an adult. The Spanish film comes later in the period but it is also the case that the British film wants present homosexuality in a supportive light, an under-age lover would have militated against this. In fact in the film one of the gay character specifically rules out affairs with the ‘normal’ and by implication with the under-aged. In The Deputy the issue of age assists the blackmail.

The 35mm print was a little odd: the projectionist had problems with the aspect ratio from reel to reel. IMDB lists the film as 1.85:1 and shot on Kodak Eastmancolor. Films on the continent were still frequently shot on 1.66:1. It seemed that the ratio was not consistent across the reels, I thought it might have been a composite print and the sources were not uniform? The definition and colour palette were pretty good though stylistically the film is very conventional.

Seven Days in January / 7 días de enero (1979) was co-written, produced and directed by Juan Antonio Bardem, a long standing director/writer in the Industry whose career runs from 1948. The film dramatises an actual event from 1977, ‘the Massacre of Atocha’. This occurred in ‘La Transición’. A secret group of fascists murdered a group of left-wing lawyers at offices in Atocha Street in Madrid. The public response, including large demonstrations for the funerals. added to the pressures to legalise the Communist Party. Some of the assassins were caught, tried and imprisoned but the suspicion remained that shadowy figures high up escaped justice.

Bardem films follows the record fairly closely though there are some odd differences. The main one that I noticed was during the actual murder, committed in the film with automatic handguns. The Wikipedia record gives sub-machine guns/ And in the film the individual shots were not really convincing given the number killed [five] and wounded [four].

The film does include the main aspects of the infamous killings. This included a strike organised by the Sindicato Vertical, a trade union for transport workers; the lawyers relationship with the Communist Party; meetings and preparations by the assassins and their secret ‘masters’, this presumably deduction rather than the record. And, accentuating the conflict and the sense of crisis, incidents organised by a militant left-wing group, GRAPO (Grupos de Resistencia Antifascista Primero de Octubre).

The events are presented in a flashback structure so that whilst we see events following the murders, notably the massive demonstration that accompanied the funeral, we only see the actual killings in full close to the end of the film. The flashbacks show us the workers involved in the strike whom the lawyers are supporting; the activities of the lawyers and their offices; and meetings between the assassins and between them and their secret backers.

I found that this structure enabled the viewer to note and relate the different characters and their activities in the narrative. However, it did seem to diminish the drama of the story and did not fully clarify different aspects which seemed less central than others. IMDB gives the film a running time of 124 minutes but some other listings give 180 minutes. I wondered if the English language release was shorter than the original film. This would have affected the flashback structure which could work better in a longer version: it might also affect issues like the strike which in this print needs developing.

The print was screened in 1.185:1 and was shot in colour. There was a flaw on the audience left-hand side of the frame which the projectionist had to make adjustments for. The definition and colour were both reasonable: but the film does use noir lighting and I wondered if the tones of this were accurate.

Both these films suffered from weaknesses in their scripting and delivery. I found in both that the political dimension was not fully developed. They were certainly interesting in terms of the conflicted values of ‘La Transición’. Both use artefacts from the period, film, stills, publications and illustrative art. Some of this comments on the characters and actions but its function seems mainly to help a sense of authenticity. There were a series of films addressing both the political conflicts and the sexual contradictions of the period. It would be interesting to view these and compare other dramas with these two thrillers.

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October 1917 on film.

Posted by keith1942 on October 25, 2017

“A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre:…”

The famous s opening line by Marx and Engels of ‘The Communist Manifesto’ of 1848 appears to be as true today. Certainly the same spectre haunts the contemporary European bourgeoisie; hence the sad lack of celebrations to mark the Centenary of The Great October Socialist Revolution; 25th October old-style calendar, 7th November new-style calendar. The same silence and absence characterises cinematic celebrations [at least in my film circles] despite the fact that the Revolution was the inspiration for the most challenging and influential film movement in the C20th world cinema – Soviet montage.

It is not a total absence. Kino Klassica have organised a number of screenings in London including a performance of the 1928 October (October 1917 Ten Days That Shook the World / Oktyabr) at the Barbican on October 26th. Like the screenings earlier in the year this was a weekday evening, not viable for people far from the Metropolis. It seems that the organisation did apply to the British Film Institute for a grant to organise screenings outside the Metropolis, but were turned down. Unsurprisingly the BFI London Film Festival offered no screenings of any of the Soviet classics.

Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna did better, featuring several films of relevance in the programme ‘A Hundred Years Ago: 50 films of 1917 in 35mm’. This included an attractive Danish animation, Petrograd in the Sign of Revolution and a film from Jakov Protozanov, Stop Shedding Blood (Ne nado krovii). Hopefully future programmes will see films from the succeeding years of the Revolution.

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto did worse. The Soviet Programme was ‘Soviet Travelogues’ which were interesting but rather low on political content. There was a 35mm print of Aelita (1924), more interested in Science Fiction than the Revolution. And there was An Unprecedented Campaign / Nebuvalyi Pokhid (UkrSSr, 1931) directed by Mikhail Kaufman. The film celebrated the first five year plan: my friend who watched the whole film was impressed. I had problems with the digital copy, not good visual quality and running too fast. However, I had even more problems with the musical accompaniment by a Ukrainian collective. Anton Baibakov. This has more to do with Ukrainian petit–bourgeois nationalism than Socialist Construction and effectively sabotaged the film.

The Leeds International Film Festival [like that in London] was notable only for the complete absence of any Soviet Titles. This was despite the Leeds Festival including the date of the Revolution [new style Calendar]. HOME in Manchester went better with a number of Soviet titles in a programme of films. However, the title of the programme, ‘A Revolution Betrayed?’, denigrated rather than celebrated the Revolution. The title appeared to be a reference to the writings of Leon Trotsky. He was probably justified in feeling personally betrayed but given that in 1917 he was one of the leaders of the Revolution, this sectarian treatment seemed misconceived.

West Yorkshire did have screenings of The End of St Petersburg / Konets Sankt-Peterburga (1927) in September [HPPH] and October [[Sheffield Showroom] on 35mm: and Man With a Movie Camera / Chelovek s kino-apparatom (1929) in September [HBPH] on digital. The former had an excellent musical accompaniment from the Harmonie Band though unfortunately the print was a copy of a sound transfer in 1969 with cropping of the image. Still to come in Battleship Potemkin / Bronenosets Potemkin (1925) at Hebden Bridge Picture House on December 2nd, with live piano accompaniment.

There is always the account written by John Reed, ‘Ten Days that Shook the World’ (1921). The BBC Radio 4 offered a ten-part dramatisation of the book which is still available on the Webpages [definitely at least until November 7th]. It is much shorter than the book and is not a real substitute for reading this account recommended by Lenin himself. But it does give a taste of Reed’s fine writing and coverage of the Revolution. Interestingly it also includes occasional additions by Louise Bryant who produced her own account, ‘Six Red Months in Russia’ (1918).

*********************************************

Postscript:

I should add something on the new British release The Death of Stalin , written and directed by Armando Iannucci. I always found his television work distinctly unfunny and the trailer for the film seemed to be much of the same: heavy-handed satire. Like, he never uses a mallet when there is a sledge-hammer to hand.

So I have not seen it. Friends and colleagues opine:

‘funny but in bad taste’ – unfunny and in bad taste’ ‘much funnier than the trailer and totally reprehensible’.

It has a lot of good reviews but I do not have a high regard for much of the critical discourse.

Worse though is the release of the film as we approach the Centenary of the Great October Revolution: which I take to be a deliberate tactic. One exhibitor offered,

” CITIZENS! PATRIOTS! PICTUREHOUSE MEMBERS!

Your country needs you to celebrate the October Revolution (in comedy filmmaking)!

The Death Of Stalin, the greatest movie this nation has ever produced, is in cinemas now.

The leadership calls on all true comrades not to let the counter-revolutionary forces of nihilism and unpatriotic not-going-to-the-cinema triumph! Instead, make your way to your local Picturehouse to celebrate our nation’s greatest filmic achievement and maybe also buy some popcorn.

Death to mediocre films! Death to comedies that only raise the odd titter! They are traitor films, the product of saboteurs and imperialists and bad writing and stuff. Instead, join all Picturehouse comrades in saluting Comrade Director Armando Iannucci, Father of Alan Partridge and The Thick Of It, mighty excavator of major LOLs; praise Comrade Actors Steve Buscemi, Jason Isaacs, Michael Palin and the other supreme talents of the Central Committee in their selfless devotion to doing acting and saying their lines.

We call on you to join the appropriate throng of comrades heading to the Picturehouse, to revel in the patriotic triumph of this great movie, and then tell all your comrade followers on social(ist) media.

Though not during the film.

LONG LIVE THE DEATH OF STALIN! LONG LIVE CINEMA!”

This is truly reprehensible and banal but worth quoting in full so one can remember the depths to which the contemporary cinema industry can plunge. It is not actually accurate in reproducing the personality cult in the USSR. I suppose the one tenuous  connection is that, just as Stalin and the Party leadership did not have a full and proper grasp of Marx’s analysis, the writers of this poppycock have zero grasp of socialism.

 

 

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‘Modern Ghost Melodramas’

Posted by keith1942 on September 27, 2017

This is a new book by Michael Walker and published by the Amsterdam University Press. Michael’s previous book was ‘Hitchcock’s Motifs’ [also Amsterdam University Press, 2005 ). That book presented a study of an auteur through the motifs that form part of his distinctive themes and style. This new book presents genre study and, to a degree, discusses the motifs that contribute to the common features across a range of films.

This is a modern genre cycle and Michael is mainly interested in the films that work as melodrama rather than horror. The variety of films represents a genre that is found across the international film industry. He discusses over fifty films in fair detail with the primary focus on their narratives. He also tends to a psycho-analytical standpoint though he also discusses social and cultural aspects.

The style of the book is accessible and he is careful to define terms and concepts and he avoids cumbersome footnotes. He does, though, reference a range of published works on aspects of the films and the genre.

The book itself is well produced and the illustrative stills are of a high quality.

I am writing several reviews of the book and it struck me that as it is large and comlex [460 odds pages]that the details of the contents would help to give an overall sense of the book.  So I am including this below.

 

Contents

Acknowledgments

  1. Introduction The Gothic Tradition Freud and Motifs
  2. Three Major Predecessors

The Haunted House    The Changeling (Peter Medak, Canada, 1979)

The Malevolent Hotel The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, GB, I980)

The Avenging Ghost   |Ghost Story (John Irvin, US, 1981)

  1. The Fallow Years: An Assortment of Ghosts

Bringing Back the Past           Lady in White (Frank LaLoggia, US, 1988) and

Ijintachi Tono Natsu / The Discarnates (Nobuhiko Obayashi, Japan, 1988)

Benevolent Ghosts       Ghost (Jerry Zucker, US, 1990)   Always (Steven Spielberg, US, 198  The Seductive Revenant Haunted (Lewis Gilbert, UK/ US, 1995)

Seminal Films

  1. Ghosts in the City

A Ghost World     The Sixth Sense (M. Night Shyamalan, US, 1999)

Working-class Tensions  Stir of Echoes (David Koepp, US, 1999)

  1. Ghosts in the Machine Ringu / Ring (Hideo Nakata, Japan, 1998) and

Ringu 2 / Ring 2 (Nakata, Japan, 1999)

  1. Schoolgirl Angst Kokkuri-san / Kokkuri (Takahisa Zeze, Japan, 1997)

Memento Mori (Kim Tae-yong & Min Kyu-dong, South Korea, 1999)

  1. Childhood Abuse In Dreams (Neil Jordan, US, 1998) and

The Dark (John Fawcett, UK/Germany, 2005)   The Haunting (Jan de Bont, US, 1999)

Evolution of the cycle

  1. Generic Developments 1: Messages from the Dead

A Ghost Movie Thriller What Lies Beneath (Robert Zemeckis, US, 2000)

Southern Gothic The Gift (Sam Raimi, US, 2000)

Bereaved Husband Dragonfly (Tom Shadyac, US/Germany, 2002)

  1. Spain and History 1: Politics and War El espinazo del Diablo / The Devil’s Backbone (Guillermo del Toro, Spain/Mexico, 2001).Tthe Others / Los Otros (Alejandro Amenabar, Spain/ US, 2001)

l0. Hollywood Reinflections The Ring (Gore Verbinski 2002) and The Ring Two (Hideo Nakata 2005)                 Male Melodrama Below (David Twohy, 2002)

  1. Asian Variations Pon / Phone (Ahn Byung-ki, South Korea. 2000). Ju-on (Takashi Shimizu, Japan, 2004) and The Grudge (Takashi Shimizu, US, 2004) Chakushin Ar / One Missed Call (Takashi Miike, Japan, 2004)

I2. Generic Developments 2: Ghosts in the Woman’s Film    Honogurai mizu

No Soko Kara / Dark Water (Hideo Nakata,Japan, 2002)      Dark Water (Walter Salles, US, 2005)           Half Light (Craig Rosenberg, Germany/US, 2006) The Marsh (Jordan Barker, Canada/ US, 2006)

  1. Ghosts and Institutions I: South Korea

The School The Yeogo Goedam films           – Whispering Corridors (Park Ki-hyeong 1998) Voice (Choi Equan 2005) A Blood Pledge (Lee Jong-yong 2009)

The Department Store Geoul Sokeru / Into the Mirror (Kim Sung-ho 2003)

  1. Ghosts and institutions 2: The West

The Hospital    Riget/the Kingdom (4-part TV series) (Lars von Trier & Morten Arnfred, Denmark, 1994)  Fragile / Frágiles (Jaume Balaguero, Spain/UK, 2005)

The Prison Gothika (Mathieu Kassovitz, US, 2003)

  1. National Variations

Hong Kong Inner Senses (LO Chi-leurig 2002)         India Bbhoot / Ghost (Ram Gopal Varma, 2003)       France Histoire de Marie et Julien (Jacques Rivette 2003)

Italy: Three Films NonTti Muovere / Don’t Move (Sergio Castellitto, Italy/Spain/

UK, 2004) L’aniore Ritorna (Sergio Rubini 2004)     Ovunque sei (Michele Placido 2004)

  1. Anatomy of the Ghost Melodrama Themes and Motifs

Ryeong /The Ghost / Dead Friend (Kim Tae-kyoung, South Korea, 2004)

Narrative structure Sakesi / Retribution (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan, 2006)

  1. Spain and History

2: The Franco Legacy and the Catholic Church

Lost Children El Orfanato / The Orphanage (J.A. Bayona 2006)

Unwilling Martyrs No-Do/ The Haunting / The Beckoning (Elio Quiroga 2009)

  1. The Return of the British Ghost Film The Disappeared (Johnny Kevorkian, UK, 2008) Genova (Michael Winterbottom, UK/Cayman Islands, 2008)    The Awakening (Nick Murphy UK/France, 2011)

The Woman in Black  The Woman in Black (Herbert Wise, TVM, 1989)    The Woman in Black (James Watkins, UK/US/Canada/Sweden, 2011)         The Secret of Crickley Hall (Joe Ahearne 2012,3-part BBC TV mini-series)

  1. Recent US developments and conclusion

Return to Haunted-house Horror

Broken Families and Mourning

 

Conclusion

Filmography

Illustrations

Bibliography

Index

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Notes from another India.

Posted by keith1942 on August 27, 2017

A Kolkata shanty town – Alamy file.

This was another screening presented by the Pavilion together with the Hyde Park Picture House. In fact, we can look forward to a number of films about the sub-continent and the states created seventy years ago, in 1947, India and Pakistan. As one would expect from the Pavilion these are unconventional film which offer a distinctive take on the sub-continent and its cultures

The programme offered

“three perspectives on Kolkata, a city whose name was anglicised to Calcutta during the British Imperial period, then officially changed to it’s Bengali pronunciation in 2001.”

Tales From Planet Kolkata (UK, 1993, 38 min)

Rochir Joshi is an Indian writer and filmmaker and also authors a columns in ‘The Telegraph’, ‘India Today’ and other publications. He was born in Kolkata and now is an artist in the Diaspora, commuting between London and Delhi.

“In 1993, Ruchir Joshi decided to spoof the Western cinematic notions of the city that he loves.

“My documentary Tales From Planet Kolkata was made to mock the popular perception of the city. I was fed up of everyone telling me about the progression of Mumbai and Delhi while Kolkata, apparently, languished in the backwaters,” says Joshi.” (From ‘Indian Express’: the film was commissioned by Channel 4.

The film is in colour and in the academy ratio. It was projected from a digital source.

The film offers a series of shots and sequences from the city. Some of these offer comments on the history, notably two singers who display traditional scrolls with paintings about events, including the British presence in the city. The soundtrack is quite diverse, some of it is actual sound with voices of the inhabitants. There is a reflective strand in the film as people refer to the earlier western filmmakers who have filmed in the city: notably Louis Malle and Pier Paulo Pasolini. A recurring strand is film of the making of ‘City of Joy’ (1991) which starred Patrick Swayze. These cinematic references are completed with the final imagery of acetate film floating and then sinking in the river.

The cinematography in the film is very well done and it is visually pleasing. The sound, images and metaphors do not completely translate for English viewers [though there are sub-titles] but I suspect that it deliberate.

There were then two films made by Mark LaPore, a USA-based experimental filmmaker and teacher: he died in 2005. The ‘Boston Glove’ obituary included the comment on Lapore’s films as :

”unique, a form of visual anthropology but equally about the mystery of being and film as consciousness. These uncompromising films have enormous integrity and deserve a very important place within the entire history of film.’”

Will Rose in introducing the films pointed out that LaPore’s work was ethnographic but also personal and offered a strong sense of place. I certainly got this sense from the films.

The Glass System (USA, 2000, 20 min)

The film was in black and white, academy ratio and was projected on 16mm. It was a series of shots of the city and its people. There is a thread running through the film but rather tenuous; there is definitely the sense of the personal in the selection of images and sounds. LaPore has a tendency for long takes. The film is mostly in long shot with the camera moving to mid-shots and close-ups, most frequently on people. The camera is most often in “plan américain”, a straight-on shot at mid-height. The sound appears to be predominantly actual including the music.

Mark LaPore on an improvised dolly.

Kolkata (USA, 2005, 35 min – his final film)

This was my favourite of the three titles. It was also filmed in black and white and academy on 16mm. Like The Glass System the film is composed of a series of shots of the city and its people. In this film the emphasis is on the streets, their vendors and shoppers and a street market. At the centre of the film are two remarkably parallel tracks, one reversing the other. Both seem to run for about five minutes as LaPore [and we with him] observe the life of the street. Both tracks are plan américain. The accompanying sound seems mainly actual, though the complex mix of sounds produces an aural tapestry.

And finally there was an excerpt from

Dreams and Apparitions of Mark Lapore (Saul Levine, 2006/7, 12 min)

This film, made after LaPore’s death [by suicide], offers friends and colleagues talking about him and his work.

Here a colleague recounts a minor but telling incident. She was preparing for a film class and checked her bag for her materials, including two cans of Kodak Tri-Pax. After the class she realised that one can was used film. it turned out to be film shot be LaPore before he died. It was filmed in India and focussed on elephants, a particular interest of the filmmaker. So she screened the film for us, [whilst the original was in colour this extract was on black and white video].

You gained a real sense of both a working relationship and a friendship from the film.

This was a really worthwhile set of screenings. It is always pleasure, [rare now] to watch 16mm film prints. The texture and contrast of the films, especially in black and white, is distinct from digital formats. And the films were, to differing degrees, fascinating.

The Pavilion have two more events planned at the Hyde Park Picture House in this series.

And the Independent Cinema Office have a number of titles, really fine films produced in India, circulating over the months of the anniversary.

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Two Monks / Dos Monjes, Mexico 1934.

Posted by keith1942 on August 21, 2017

This was part of a programme at Il Cinema Ritrovato 2017 presenting ‘Revolution and Adventure: Mexican Cinema in the Golden Age. The programmers Daniela Michel and Chloë Roddick explained in the Festival Catalogue;

“This programme aims to offer a broad spectrum of work that explores some of the most significant political, social and cultural moments in Mexican history. beginning with the nascent sound cinema of the early 1930s, the selection encompasses a variety of styles and genres through the 1940s, 50s, and early 60s.”

It appears that film production in Mexico took off in 1933. And this early sound film is both intensely interesting and seems to have been influential. The curators again,

“The beginnings of sound cinema in Mexico in the early 1930s saw the birth of a strange new genre that might reasonably be called ‘Mexican Gothic’. Arguably, in part, a more subtle and obscure response to the violence [that] had been imprinted on the collective psyche by the Revolution, films like the Spanish-language remake of Tod Browning’s Drácula (1931), …”

This film certainly combines some of the key features found in Gothic, horror, death and romance. It also includes tropes and motifs common in the genre, with unexpected revelations, gloomy and threatening buildings, religious paraphernalia and characters who suffer and/or swoon.

The film opens in a monastery where Brother Javier(Carlos Villatoro) appears to be in the process of some sort of mental breakdown. His condition is exacerbated when a new arrival, Brother Servando, appears.  He recounts the experiences to the Prior is an extensive flashback.

Javier is an affluent young man living with his mother Gertrude (Emma Roldán) with a particular talent for music and composition. He is smitten with the young women staying with his neighbours, Ana (Magda Heller). Their relationship develops but it is hampered by Javier’s delicate health: he appears to suffer from some sort of consumption. An old friend Juan (Victor Urruchúa) returns to the town. As the marriage of Javier and Ana approaches Javier discovers Ana and Juan in a compromising situation. In the ensuing fight Ana is accidentally shot by Juan.

As the flashback ends Javier tells the \prior that he searched for ‘Ana’s murderer’ everywhere and finally ended up in the monastery. Low and behold Juan appears in the guise of Brother Servando. The Prior now questions Juan/Servando who also confesses in another long flashback.

Much of this presents the same detail as in Javier’s confession, but from a different angle. What we do learn is that Juan and Ana were lovers prior to his leaving the town. On his return,

“like a bad dream”

he finds her ands Javier engaged. We also learn that Javier’s ill-health means that a shock could kill him. Hence Juan and Ana repress their re-wakened love until the night when Javier discovers them. Juan is planning to once more leave the town and this is his farewell.

The second flashback ends and we follow as Javier goes to the chapel, followed by Juan, the Prior and the other monks. Javier then expires playing the chapel organ.

The story is oddball but full of the themes that delighted surrealists: romanticism, repression, dream worlds, and fetishistic objects. The Catalogue notes informed that

“French surrealist and writer André Breton was reportedly taken with the film, which he saw during a visit to Mexico, dubbing it a “bold and unusual experiment”.”

However, there is also the influence of German expressionism

“evident in the film’s moody, nuanced use of black and white, and the photography of celebrated Mexican photographer Augustin Jiménez, which together create a strange, distorted atmosphere.”

So the film combines the obsession with desire [surrealism] with the dark eruptions of the psyche [expressionism].

The monastery in particular is full of chiaroscuro. And the religion objects, especially the crucifixes, are weirdly distorted. The mansion where Javier lives with his mother has odd objects, including a strangely elongated clock. And the camera constantly presents characters framed through window bars and grills. The sets are frequently oddly angled, and the camera mirrors this with low angle shots. In a real coup Javier and Juan are presented in alternative black and white clothing’s in the two flashbacks; emphasising the ambiguous nature of the revelations. There is the mother/son relationship, to become a staple of film noirs. And the final dramatic organ sequence became a staple of the horror genre.

The film was screened from a DCP in Spanish with English sub-titles. The restoration was part of the World Cinema Project of The Film Foundation.

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Under the Bridge / Unter Brücken, Germany 1945 – 1949.

Posted by keith1942 on July 31, 2017

This film, on 35mm and in black and white, was part of a programme ‘Watchful Dreamer: The Subversive Melancholia of Helmut Käutner’ at Il Cinema Ritrovato 2017. He started out as an actor in the German film industry in 1932 and progressed to writing and directing in 1939. He made nine films during the war years and continued filmmaking into the 1960s and work for television into the 1970s. This film, like two others, only received a proper release after the end of the war, hence the release years indicated. The Catalogue entry by Olaf Möller comments on one of the other titles, the 1944/45 Great Freedom No. 7 / Grosse Freieit Nr.7,  that

“Kautner created a world-weary melodrama whose doom-laden mood and non-conformist spirit were too much for the reigning powers…”

The problems with that film may have affected Under the Bridge, Helmut directed and  co-scripted both films. This later film eschews reference to the war, at a time when the Allies’ bombing campaigns were starting to devastate the German homeland. Möller notes that this film was,

“a timeless tale about river barge sailors inside the city as well as the surrounding areas…”

Despite being filmed in Berlin and its environs this is not the recognisable Germany of this late war period:

“for one thing, Käutner shot places in the capital (among others the old Jannowitzbrücke and the Schlütersteg-Brücke) that were bombed soon after … creating documents of a Berlin now gone. Also, he registered a few ruins from the first bombing in ’44. i.e. some of the earliest signs of the city’s coming annihilation.”

The film seems as unaware of the war as the German population appeared to be of the Nazi death camps.

Recalling earlier films set on barges and canals we meet the two owners-cum-sailors of a barge ‘Liselotte’, Hendrik Feldkamp (Carl Raddatz) and Willy (Gustav Knuth). Hendrik is the successful womaniser on their trips ashore, as we see in the opening sequence of the film. Whilst Willy is shyer and lacking the same confidence. For much of the time the pair work the barge, usually part of a convoy pulled along canals and rivers by a tug. Their port visits provide the opportunity for pleasure, drinking and women. Hendrik and Willy also discuss buying a diesel engine for the barge which would widen their scope and their income. But it would also involve a substantial loan and eight years of paying this off. [The film, of course, is unaware of the irony involved in taking on this debt and the repayment period].

The events that disrupt this steady and relatively pleasant and harmonious life is fairly conventional. One night, passing under one of the many bridges that line the route and give the film its title, Hendrik spies a lone woman apparently planning to leap from a bridge into the river. This is Anna Altmann (Hannelore Schroth). Anna has come from Silesia to work in Berlin and is all alone in the world.

Hendrik and Anna

Predictably both men are taken with this young and attractive woman. We see the development on the barge, later in Berlin when she returns to her flat in the city. This meeting leads to disruption in the working friendship of Hendrik and Willy. As the audience expect, Hendrik is the more successful initially, assisted by his skilful accordion playing and singing. But he is also an apparently a less reliable prospect, with his ever roaming eye for woman. Matters come to partial head when the pair take a longer trip to Rotterdam and on they return to the capital city. Anna’s final choice is predictable but deftly handled.

There are some effective e sequences on the barge. The barge guard is Vera, a goose, who [unfortunately] suffers the fate of providing a celebratory dinner. Later Anna provides curtain for the cabin portholes, which also provide a cover for the home-made pin-ups on the walls. The barge also possesses living quarters in the main cabin and [on a lesser scale] in the bows. Where either of the friends is housed reflects on the progress of the ménage a trois.

There are also equally effective treatments during the land based courtships. Hendrik and Willy discover, to the chagrin’ that at one point Anna resorted to nude modelling for painter. Both surreptitiously visit an art gallery to observe nude paintings , a sequence of humour and delight.

Willy and Anna

Käutner scripted the film with Walter Ulbrich from a manuscript by Leo de Laforgue. The characters are well drawn and the three main actors, who occupy most of the screen time, are excellent. And the visual presentation of their story is finely done. The cinematography by Igor Oberberg has some fine location filming in Berlin. What also stands out are the shots of the rivers, canals and surrounding countryside as the barge wends its way. And the editing by Wolfgang Wehrum is precise and includes some notable montages, especially of the bridges that the barge passes under as it enters the cities of Potsdam and Berlin.

Möller refers to Neo-realism in his comments. Whilst the film does have some of the poetry of the earlier film by Jean Vigo it does, at the same time, capture the actual workings of the bargees life and work.

Il Cinema Ritrovato programme had seven titles directed by Käutner. I saw two of the other, also on 35mm prints. There was Ludwig 1. Glanz und ende eines Königs (Mad Emperor: Ludwig 11, 1955), in colour. The film treated Ludwig’s life and career in segments, with only a hint of a gay subtest: this treatment is overshadowed by the later version by Luchino Visconti. And there was A Glass of Water (Das Glas Wasser, 1960), also in colour and set in the England of Queen Anne. This was a very 1960s film and reminded me  a little of Moll Flanders (1975). However, I heard good reports of other titles and Käutner would look like a filmmaker who would repay seeking out.

 

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Divine, France 1935.

Posted by keith1942 on July 19, 2017

Screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato in 2017 as part of a programme constructed around the work of the French writer Collette. The Festival Catalogue introduced the film:

“According to the opening credits, Divine, directed by Max Ophūls, is the “first screenplay written specifically for the cinema with dialogue by … Colette  [of the sound era],” The film is based  on one of her literary works. ‘L’Envers du music-hall’ (1913), a moving choral fresco about the music hall comprised of sequences detailing numerous individual stories provides the frame. The novella ‘Divine’ supplied the film with its protagonist who has the body of both a Goddess and a peasant and who is played by Simone Barriau [as Ludivine ‘Divine’ Jaris] (who also acted as producer and who made her country estate available for the exteriors).” (Paolo Palme).

The film opens in the country [on this estate] where young Ludivine is persuaded to move to Paris and work in the music hall by her friend Roberte (Yvette Lebon). Once working at the Paris music-hall in the chorus Ludivine is soon christened ‘Divine’. She starts to ascent the stairway to stardom: an early lead role involves her being draped with a live snake in a exotic and orientalist number.

‘Divine’ is the centre of the narrative. We see her pursued and fending off the various offensives by male admirers. She also acquires a non- music hall boyfriend, the local milkman, Antonin (Georges Rigaud).. With him she shares the love of the rural world from which she comes. Other stories are also followed, including the use of drugs by the performers. Much of the film displays with great detail and a sense of the authentic, the world of the backstage, with which both Colette and Ophüls were familiar.

Whilst the theatrical world and the characters are very much Colette the presentation is very much Ophüls. As a filmmaker he was noted for the mobility of the camerawork and the smooth but complex style of editing. By this stage of his career Ophüls had already directed Liebelei (1933 in Germany)  and La Signora Di Tutti (1934 in Italy). Both display the skills that grace his cinema, they also reflect the peripatetic nature of his filmmaking life. In this French film he is ably served by the craftsmen: set design by Jacques Gotko and Robert Gys, cinematography by Roger Hubert, editing by Léonide Moguy.

The distinctive and effective style of the film is demonstrated in the opening sequence where Roberte comes to visit her childhood friend in her expensive motor car. Ludivine is helping her mother (Catherine Fonteney) plough a field on their farm. The trio of women return to the farmhouse where, over the evening, Roberte explains to Ludivine the attractions of music hall stardom.

[The following is from my notes at the screening so I may have not noted all the shots].

Opening on a close up of a plough, a mid-shot shows the two women with the plough and the farm horse. A dissolve leads to close ups of  the plough, a wheel, a mirror and then a mid-shot of the motor car to which they belong. A track follows a young blonde woman (Roberte) as she runs to greet mother and daughter. A further reverse track shows the three women, with the horse, returning to the farmhouse.

A dissolve shows us the interior and soup on the stove. A reverse track fills out the room and the family dog. A skilful pan shows Roberte with Ludivine as they remove their wet stockings. There is a cut to a long shot of the room and the women framed through the old fashioned fire place. Another dissolve takes us to Ludivine’s bedroom where the girls change in shadows. A dolly follows as both girls sit together on the bed. A pan follows Roberte as she demonstrates a theatrical walk moving from the bed to the window. A further pan moves us back to Ludivine as he then copies Roberte’s walk. [A tolling bell sounds in the distance]. The camera tilts up the wall to a picture of Angels. A cut moves from Roberte [to the accompaniment of music including drums on the soundtrack) to the exterior of Folie Bergeres. A further cuts takes us backs stage to where a dance troupe is preparing for an act. A combined track and crane shot travels around backstage as we see various theatrical individuals and then climb up towards the back stage dressing rooms. Thus Ludivine arrives in the world of the music hall.

There are several equally stylish sequences in the film, mainly set in the back state of the theatre as we see the working lives of the thespians. At one point a complete 360% camera movement presents the whole of the set of one of the revue numbers. And there are a number of beautifully executed track and crane shots. The style embellishes the film beyond its often conventional narrative.

The characters are familiar from other dramas set in music halls and back stage. Barriau as ‘Divine’ is impressive and provides a strong centre to the film. The plotting exhibits the qualities often associated with the writings of Collette. Much time is spent in the dressing rooms of the chorus where there are frequently scantily clad females. There are explicit suggestions of the sexual merry-go-round back stage. And there is a central theme about drug taking in the theatre. In contrast the film’s closure is marked by the wedding of ‘Ludivine and Antonin, however, as is noted in the Catalogue;

Divine concludes with an extremely ambiguous happy-ending that highlights the understanding that existed between screenwriter and director. Collette and Ophūls both conceive of the union of man and woman as a loss. Neither see marriage as a real solution. The director underlines this visually by placing the final nuptials behind a grate, …”

All together it makes for a memorable 74 minutes. The original release ran at 82 minutes, but whatever is missing did not seem noticeable. The 35mm print was reasonably good: the film was restored from the original nitrate in 1997.  The soundtrack, from the mid-1930s,  was tinny at times but pretty good for the period. .

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Humanity and Paper Balloons/Ninjo Kamifusen, Japan 1937

Posted by keith1942 on July 15, 2017

This was a title that I had frequently heard or read about with recommendation but this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato offered me the first chance to actually watch and enjoy the film. It was the first screening in a retrospective ‘The Japanese Period Film in the Valley of Darkness’. The ‘valley of darkness’ was the 1930s when Japan became increasingly dominated by the Military and embarked on wars in China, Korea and right across the Pacific. The programme was curated by Alexander Jacoby and John Nordström, who have already provided several excellent retrospectives of Japanese cinema.

They explained in their introduction that the selection offered films from the 1930s when

“Under the militarist regime of the late 1930s, the Japanese period film (jidai-geki), became a refuge for liberal filmmakers. The Narutaki-gumi, an informal group of filmmakers pledged to modernise Japanese cinema, were at the heart of a new breed of jidai-geki which opted for realism instead of stylization and for ironic pessimism rather than heroic optimism.” (Festival Catalogue).

This group usually worked the Zenshin-za progressive theatre troupe.

Alex explained that the films were to a degree subversive, exploring

“how to present the past'”

In the late 1930s

“the past was a set of contested values… “

and these films contested Samurai values, central to the value system of the militarist regime.

This film, directed by Yamanaka Sadao set the tone. Yamanaka was an important and creative filmmaker in the period. However, the majority of his films, both silent and sound, are lost. Only three full-length features and a number of extracts survive. As a director Yamanaka was noted for his style and his ability to work with complex plots and numerous characters. He died young when conscripted to the army for the war against China.

“Yamanaka produces a disenchanted study of a society in which the values of bushido celebrated in the more traditional jidai-geki are abandoned or betrayed , and in which people cannot progress.” (Festival catalogue).

In this film space was an important element of style and metaphor.

” Film offers a ‘safe space’ in a poor district, opposed to the lack of humanity and rigidity in the social structure.”

The film opens and closes with suicides. That at the beginning is of a Samurai/Ronin, i.e. a master less samurai, in this case reduced to poverty. This event takes place in a tightly packed tenement in C18th Edo. We hear the tenants discussing the suicide and learn that the Samurai hanged himself. It transpires that he did not, in traditional fashion, commit seppuku [the ritual suicide] as he no longer had a proper samurai sword but a bamboo replica. This has become a frequent trope in Japanese samurai films with characters selling their metal swords because of poverty and hard times. I do not know if this is the earliest example but it is likely that this is an influential device.

The suicide results in a squad of Samurai visiting the tenement to investigate. This sets up the division in the film between the traditional authorities and the poor and relatively powerless people who live in the tenement.

This tenement is controlled by the landlord Chobei (Suketakaya Sukezo) , a unsympathetic character who only visits to the tenement to collect rent or when the authorities take an interest. There are a number of tenants who we see and hear. A key character is Shinza the barber (Nakamura Kan’emon). We hardly ever see him practising his trade and he is involved in a petty gambling ring. The original property for the film was a Kabuki play ‘Kamiyui Shinza’ (Shinza the Barber} adapted by Mimura Shintaro. It seems the film is more downbeat than the play. In the film Shinza is a trickster, rather like the monkey in some Japanese tales, equivalent of Reynard the Fox in European tales.

Hi neighbour is Unno Matajuro (Kawarasaki Chojuro), another master less Ronin. Unno’s wife Otaki (Yamagishi Shizue) raises income by making the paper balloons of the film title. Unno spends much of the film trying to gain an interview with a local pawnbroker who rebuffs his efforts. Unno’s father, another Samurai, had done service for the house of the pawnbroker and Unno wishes to present a letter setting this out.

Two other important characters in the tenement are a blind masseur who, despite his disability, has a keen sense of what transpires. He also keeps a ‘close eye’ on Genko (Nakamura Tsuruzo) who lives by selling gold fish but also by petty pilfering: in a couple of sequences this involves the blind man’s pipe. The pawnbroker’s house also houses his daughter Okoma for whom he is trying to arrange in marriage to a Samurai, a proposal that needs to assistance to bridge the class divide. However, the film subtly suggests that there is an attraction between Okoma and one of the house servants, Chushichi (Segawa Kukunojo).

Acting in some ways as a connections between the tenements and the business sector is Yatagoro, who heads a gang involved in gambling but also acting as enforcers for businesses such as the pawnbroker. The Samurai, who are the city authorities, only appear when they leave their privileged space to police the tenement or to collaborate with businessmen like the pawnbroker.

The drama comes to a climax when Shinza and Unno are involved in a kidnap plot to raise money. At first apparently successful the repercussions are fatal for both men. Whilst the tenement occupants celebrate at a party where the sake is provided by Shinza the two men meet their fates. Shinza is summoned to a local bridge where he is confronted by Yatagoro and his men. Meanwhile Otaki, bought to her wits ends by their situation, first murders Unno and then commits suicide. The film ends bleakly in the aftermath of this tragedy.

The commentary in the Catalogue notes

“The film highlights Yamanaka’s skill at pictorial composition and deep focus, and his use of editing.”

These qualities are also due to the excellent cinematography by Mimura Akira, editing by Iwashita Koichi and the art direction by Kubo Kazuo. The tenement set is a tightly packed warren of rooms that open onto a central street. The camera explores these as the plot develops. When we move to the main street and to the house of the pawnbroker the settings open up, providing an expansive space that contrasts to the repressive and enclosing tenement. The deeps staging and deep focus is especially noticeable in the tenement sequences, drawing attention not just to the main action but to the teeming aspects of life that carry on.

The editing emphasises the parallels and contrasts in the story and between characters. Especially impressive is the final sequence where the camera shots cut between the tenement party, Shinza at the bridge and Unno and his wife, and her increasing despair. Then in what is one of the finest ending in cinema an exterior shot follows a bouncing and rolling paper balloon as it rolls into a drainage channel alongside the tenement. The sound, full of effective noises throughout, here offers the off-screen voices of children playing.

If the ending offers a visual symbol that operates as a striking metaphor then the film continually offers motifs that reflect on the characters. There is the letter that Unno carries back and forth as he vainly seeks an audience with the pawnbroker. Finally it is drop in the mud [following heavy rain] where it lies unnoticed. Paralleling this is a flowered hairpin that is dropped by Okoma, [apparently at the same spot]. It lies there, is picked up but then dropped back in the m mud by Shinza.

The print quality was not great. In particular the contrast was limited so the full effect of deep focus was not always that apparent. But the 35mm print was sufficient to demonstrate just why this is one of the most celebrated of Japanese films. The film clearly subverts the Samurai code of the bushido, values central to the militaristic regime of the period and which had for nearly a century offered resistance to the modernisation process in Japan.

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