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The Rape of Recy Taylor, USA 2017

Posted by keith1942 on June 22, 2018

The film recounts the rape of a young Afro-American woman and mother in 1944 in Alabama by a gang of white men and her struggle for justice. This was before the period of activism known for ‘The Civil Rights Movement’. Rape of black women, like the lynching of black people, was common in the period dominated by the racist culture called ‘Jim Crow’. Recy’s struggle for justice was supported by National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People [NAACP] and by one of its field officers, Rosa Parks. Parks is famous for her role in the ‘Bus Boycotts’ in the 1950s. But this case was equally important is the development of black resistance to the racism endemic in the USA. The NAACP, committed to constitutional action, was for decades the lead organisation in the struggle for equality for Afro-Americans.

The central event in the film, an assault and rape on the 24 year-old black woman on a Sunday evening as she returned from a church service, is told through the filmed testimony of her family members and audio recordings of Recy herself. The perpetrators were six white teenagers. Though identified the local sheriff contrived to avoid any action. And Recy’s family home was terrorised and there were death threats when she pursued her claim for justice. These testimonies are intercut with contemporary footage, tending to impressionistic, of the settings, in darkness and with travelling shots that suggest a noir, even horror, feel. Alongside this are extracts from documentary film of the period and archive photographs. And as a distinctive addition clips from the ‘race cinema’ of the period and earlier.

The ‘race cinema’ operated from about 1910 to the end of the 1940s. It was a segregated cinema, in its production, distribution and exhibition, not just in the South but across the USA. Whilst it suffered from low production values due the poor economics of the business the films provided a potent experience for black audiences. The films presented black culture in its own estimation, valorised black heroes and heroines, vilified the lumpen proletarian elements in black communities and the racist white communities from which Afro-Americans had suffered. The films dramatised the brutalities and inequalities of US culture in the period, including explicit representation of rapes and lynchings and the real violent face of organisations such as the Ku Klux Klan.

These clips provides a dramatic tapestry into which Recy’s story is implanted. And the film uses virtuoso techniques to increase the drama. There are fine superimpositions of archival footage over the contemporary film. There are montage sequences which interweave, factual and fictionalised renderings. And there is added to this a powerful musical accompaniment of sombre orchestral music and well chosen songs from the Africo-American culture. Some of the characters in the events are now deceased and are voiced by actors. So the film is partly a drama-documentary and shares some formal aspects with the film of Ken Burns and his colleagues.

The film is directed by Nancy Buirski whose previous films include a documentary The Loving Story (2011) and a dramatised treatment Loving (2016) of an inter-racial couple prosecuted for breaking laws against ‘miscegenation’. This new feature falls somewhere in between, a documentary approach but dramatised by particular material and techniques. Buirski scripted the film and skilfully orchestrates the various components. There is excellent contribution in the cinematography by Rex Miller and the film uses drone cinematography to great effect. Also deserving praise is the film editing by Anthony Ripoli; the visual effects by Aaron Hodgins Davis; and the work of the eight crafts-people in the sound department. To this the credits add a long list of researchers who must have combed all sorts of archives and collections as well as tracking down people to be interviewed. The film respects the archive film and materials using their original aspect ratios.

Recy’s family member comment on the issues as well as recounting the events. In the latter stages of the film two contemporary voices add to this analysis: Daniel L. McGuire whose book ‘At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape and Resistance – a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power’ details the whole violent culture which was inflicted on Afro-American women over decades [Published in 2011 the book’s title is taken from a 1960’s song].. And there is Afro-American historian Crystal Feimster. Their contributions place this story in the wider culture of racist violence and black resistance. In particular the film draws out the role of Rosa Parks, a NAACP field officer who took up Recy’s case and worked to develop a widespread protest that reached beyond the black communities. Rosa Parks is more famous for her role in the Montgomery ‘Bus Boycott’, The commentators emphasise how the campaign of support for Recy was an equally important in the development of resistance by black people. They also emphasise how important was the role of black women in the movement, both in the 1940s and the 1950s despite the sometime over-emphasis on iconic male leaders. This argument is convincing but I would have liked more on the struggle in the 1940s. The film refers to one other campaign by another black women who suffered rape but the film implies more.

One difference between the 1940s and 1950s was, that whilst the bus boycott led on toe increase action and results, in Recy’s case despite widespread campaigning she was not able to get a fair trail of her assailants. The first trial was a mockery and subsequently an all-white jury refused indictments. The film does note that in 2011 the Alabama State Legislature passed the following:

“BE IT RESOLVED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF ALABAMA, BOTH HOUSES THEREOF CONCURRING, That we acknowledge the lack of prosecution for crimes committed against Recy Taylor by the government of the State of Alabama, that we declare such failure to act was, and is, morally abhorrent and repugnant, and that we do hereby express profound regret for the role played by the government of the State of Alabama in failing to prosecute the crimes.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, That we express our deepest sympathies and solemn regrets to Recy Taylor and her family and friends.”

Apart from the long and insulting delay the film, at this point, also includes interviews with white residents from Abbeville. They are aware of the events but are not really prepared to condemn them or offer praise for Recy’s struggle for justice. But we do see her, old and infirm, [in a residential home I think}, and she remains as resolute as she must have been in 1944. She died late in 2017. It seems unlikely that she would have seen this film’ tribute to her courage and resilience.

This films uses a complex mixture of personal film and audio testimonies, commentary and archive material. The latter includes a clip from the films of Oscar Micheaux whose work was a central component of the ‘race cinema’, segregated film production and exhibition in the USA from the 1910s to the 1940s.

This promises to be a powerful and stimulating documentary on issues that, as the news constantly reminds us, remains a central problematic in US culture. What would be good would be if we could have a follow-up of a screening of one of Oscar Micheaux’s powerful film dramas: Within Our Gates (1920) is a classic that addresses both rape and lynchings of black people.

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Posted in Documentary, History on film, US films | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

The Girls / Flickorna, Sweden 1968

Posted by keith1942 on June 9, 2018

This title was screened at the Hyde Park Picture House as part of the ‘Radical Film Network’s’ ‘1968’ programme. This is the first time the film has been released in Britain, though it may have featured at some Festival here in the past. It seems that it aroused some controversy in Sweden on it initial release. Here in Britain the BBFC gave it a ’15’ certificate with the comment ‘sexualised nudity’, [a new one on me].

The film was directed by Mail Zetterling and also scripted by her with David Hughes who was a co-writer on several of the films in Sweden. Mai Zetterling’s initial career was in the Swedish film industry but she then had a lengthy acting career in British film. Among her memorable titles are Frieda (1947) and Only Two can Play (1962); she also worked extensively on British television. One of he late appearances was in Ken Loach’s Hidden Agenda (190)..

From 1960 she moved into writing and directing films, mainly in Sweden. Her films were often controversial and address issues of a particular relevance to women. In 1982 she made the English-language film Scrubbers . Like the better known Scum (1979) it deals with the experience of Borstal, but in this film for women.

The Girls takes the famous play ‘Lysistrata’ by the Greek writer Aristophanes and puts a contemporary spin on the work. Three established actresses tour a performance of the play round Sweden. Whilst we see part so the various performances much of the film focusses on the women’s responses to the themes of the play and how this relates to their own lives and their relationships with men. Their experience of the play brings out the tragic dimension of a work normally presented as a comedy. Our sense of the play is intensified by performances before regional audiences who appear not to really understand the play and frequently display boredom.

The film enjoys a talented cast: the actresses are played by Bibi Andersson as Liz Lindstrand, Harriet Andersson as Marianne and Gunnel Lindblom as Gunilla. Whilst the less sympathetic male characters include part played by Gunnar Björnstrand and Erland Josephson. These are all fine actors, known in particular for performances in films by Ingmar Bergman. They make the quite challenging film really absorbing.

The challenge lies in the somewhat unconventional form of the film. This is in many ways similar to the ‘new wave’ films appearing across Europe in the 1960s; though we do not think of a Swedish ‘new wave’. There is unconventional editing and sound. In particular a series of sequences that appear as ‘imagined’ by the characters are show with a bleached-out look produced by over-exposure and film processing: a device found in films by Ingmar Bergman and other directors in this period.

The visualisation of the film is very effective. The opening shot appears to be three lightly coloured panels, but, as the camera tracks back, we see that they are reflections in the window of the room where the three actresses are talking about the play. Zetterling and her cinematographer [Rune Ericsson, who worked on several of her films] make great use of surfaces, windows and mirrors. There is a splendid shot of Marianne in a store partly caught in a mirror with the shop assistant over and above her dominating the frame. And there are some fine travelling shots, especially in some actual locations; towns in the north of Sweden where the play travels. The film was shot in black and white and in the 1.66:1 ratio and the print has English sub-titles. The screening used a DCP but, fortunately, Scandinavian digital transfers are well done: only the sound was a little harsh.

The film editing by Wic Kjellin and the sound with Bob Allen; Kalle Boman, sound effects and Sven Fahlén, sound mixer, is extremely complex. Zetterling intercuts the actor’s routines and the performances with each other and with ‘imagined’ sequences that present the subjective feelings of the characters. These are mainly of the women but there are also a couple by the men. Along with this there are frequent passages with overlapping sound, so that we hear the lines from the play over other scenes and the internal voices of the actors over both the play and daily routines.

Some of these techniques work better than others. Whilst Zetterling’s strategies of filming , editing and use of sound provide a commentary and a series of metaphors on the lives of the actresses and the play in which they are involved, at time it feels like over-emphasis. But it is certainly stimulating and provides a distinctive take on Aristophanes and on the experience of women in this famous decade.

There are several explicit scenes but I found the BBFC comment odd. In late 1960s Sweden the film would not seem to offer anything exceptional in this area. I suspect some controversy was partly fuelled by the feminist point-of-view on art and sexuality. But the film enjoys a high reputation in Sweden being voted into a list of top films. ‘Club des Femmes’, involved in the screening, offered an interesting comment on the film by Anna Backman, a lecturer and journalist.

“It is, indeed, an unruly and disobedient work of art and it must be experienced as such. Flickorna is a film that functions as a blowtorch on lazy, priapic narratives; it lampoons the perennial expectations of women to be kind, nurturing and soft; it positions women as active, wilful, defiant and wise in the face of men who continue to act like tyrannical toddlers and make increasingly ludicrous demands.”

The actresses and their characters display of these effectively. Whist the film does not offer a full resolution to the problems encountered the film does end with an announcement of a divorce.

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The Young Karl Marx/Le jeune Karl Marx/Der junge Karl Marx, France, Belgium, Germany (2017)

Posted by keith1942 on May 26, 2018

A must for genuine communists and recommended for anyone who is a fan of Karl Marx: the 200th anniversary of his birthday falls this month, May 5th 1818. 200 years on his ‘spectre’ still haunts the European [and now the world] bourgeoisie. The newly released film by Raoul Peck is centred on the friendship and collaboration between Marx and Friedrich Engel, the two intellectual giants of the modern era. Note, the play ‘Young Marx’ apparently commences where this dramatisation leaves off. The film covers the period from 1841 to 1848 when these youthful rebels were finding their feet and their intellectual ground. We follow Marx from Germany to Paris, to Brussels to London. We see and hear his wife Jenny and watch as he develops a relationship with Engels, already in the throes of an affair with Mary Burns.

Over this period Marx was writing for ‘Rheinische Zeitung’ (‘Rhineland News’); ‘Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher’ (‘German-French Annals’); ‘Vorwärts!’ (‘Forward!’), the last for the League of the Just. Engels had already published his famous ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844’. Marx and Engels jointly published ‘The Holy Family’ (1845). Marx followed up with ‘The Poverty of Philosophy’ (1847). Then early in 1848 he and Engels wrote for The Communist League [previously The League of the Just] ‘The Communist Manifesto’. This was published in February 1848 as a wave of proletarian revolutions swept across Europe. At this point the modern Communist movement was born and Marx and Engels continued their political activities whilst developing the analysis of Capitalism, an analysis that is as accurate today as it was when ‘Das Kapital’ (Volume 1) was first published in 1867.

Marx and Engels dominate the film as do their political discussions. We do see both Jenny and Mary involved in political action and commenting on the political debates. A number of other famous activists and theorists of the period also appear in the film. We have Michael Bakunin briefly. More frequently we see and hear Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Among the people debated with and criticised by Marx is Wilhelm Weitling.

Only Marx and Engels are presented as rounded characters. But they and the supporting cast portray these revolutionaries in a convincing manner as they also do with their political debates and arguments. It is the strength of the acting that makes the film work.

In fact it is a fairly conventional treatment, an example of the modern film biopic which tends to dramatise a character through one aspect of their life and work. Essentially this film charts the friendship and the way that it leads up to the seminal manifesto. The narrative is linear; carefully structured to include action and drama. The basic plot, though using fictional elements, is broadly historically accurate. Where it less typical is in the amount of time that it allows for political statements and debates. Visually it is similar to many other costume dramas.

The film’s running time is 118 minutes. A more daring length, such as in Peter Watkins La Commune (Paris 1871) (2000) which runs for 345 minutes., would enable a fuller treatment of the politics. Whilst an audience will get a sense of the radical ideas and analysis what actually constitutes the contribution of Marx and Engels in this period will only be clear to people familiar with the written works. When we reach ‘The Communist Manifesto’ we hear the opening paragraphs but not the equally famous ending. The complete Manifesto would have been a better choice. Perhaps a more radical film-maker [Jean-Luc Godard?] might have essayed this.

A more serious omission in some ways is the absence of the voice of the proletariat. The film opens with a fine sequence as we watch rural proletarians hunted down as they attempt to gather kindling: and a commentative voice explains the relevance of the different meanings of theft to this situation When we reach the Manifesto there is an evening sequence as Marx, Engels, Jenny and Mary read the opening of the almost complete Manifesto. Then in a montage of stills we see groups of silent proletarians offering a direct gaze to the audience and the bourgeoisie. But their voice is mainly absent. There are some excellent scenes of of factory exploitation; street meetings; and a Communist League meeting where proletarians are present. But they are only supporting where as in the work of Marx and Engels they are both the object and the subject. The Manifesto would make more sense if the proletarian impact on Marx and Engels was made clear. The film does though make clear that these two are not just isolated intellectuals but are involved in practical political action, as are both Jenny and Mary.

Within the limits of the genre the production is well done. The design, editing and use of music is rather conventional but works well. The cinematography is generally well done. However, it does use the modern technique of filming characters standing before or beside windows. This reduces the clarity in the image of the character/s, and I suspect digital formats emphasise this. The DCP I saw was generally good but the contrast was lower than it might have been on 35mm. I think the film was probably shot in a digital format. The British version is in German, French and English with appropriate sub-titles. It uses both colour and black and white in a ratio of 2.35:1.

I enjoyed the film and I was genuinely moved at times. But after the sequence constructed around ‘The Communist Manifesto’ there are two end titles pointing forward to ‘Das Kapital’. Apparently , in an effort to emphasise the continuing relevance of the Manifesto there follows a second montage of well-known events and figures in the succeeding decades. These are not all well-chosen; several of the figures would have been roundly attacked by Marx and Engels if they were still around. Better would have been a montage illustrating the final and ringing declaration of the Manifesto, the working classes still have ‘nothing to lose but their chains!

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711 Ocean Drive, USA 1950

Posted by keith1942 on May 20, 2018

I saw this film for the first time in the ‘Mary Pickford Theater’ at the Library of Congress. This is a small viewing room/cinema on the Third Floor of the Madison Memorial Building in Washington DC. James Madison was a ‘founding father’ and the 4th President of the United States. The building was erected in 1976 and is in the neo-classical style common on the National Mall. As you enter under imposing columns you pass engraved quotations by the President. The ‘Mary Pickford Theater’ is small, only seating 64 people. However it is fine for viewing though the rake is shallow. It has both digital and 35mm projection. This cinema was partly funded by a bequest by Mary Pickford herself. There are regular screenings of both film and television material held in the Library of Congress archives. I was fortunate on this occasion as this cycle of classic films is held only once  a month. Other recent screenings have included films directed by Robert Aldrich [Autumn Leaves, 1956], Lloyd Bacon [In Caliente, 1935], Jerry Lewis [The Ladies Man, 1961].

On this occasion we watched a 35mm print in good condition. It was copied by the Library in 1990 from a nitrate print held in the American Film Institute collection. The projection, including sound, was good. And whilst we waited, [doors opened at 6.30 for a 7.00 p.m. start] there were a series of PDF pages projected on the screen detailing the production company and the careers of the director and stars. In addition we had an introduction providing background on the making of the film.

It was produced by Frank N. Seltzer, an independent; a common feature in the period when the studios were declining. Like other independents Seltzer relied on a major company for distribution, in this case Columbia. Seltzer was also one of the producers of a script by Dalton Trumbo during the blacklist period, The Boss (1956).

711 Ocean Drive was notable for another reason, attempts by organised crime to stop the film. The plot-line involved organised crime operating in the illegal gambling. The law restricted gambling  in the case of horse racing to the race track. Illicit bookies operated in cities dependent on information provided by a wire service. This was similar in some ways to the ‘numbers racket’ which featured in a number of Hollywood films, notably Force of Evil (1948). In many cases this also involved organised crime syndicates. In the case of 711 Ocean Drive threats were made against the production. For one climatic scene it is possible that shots were fired at the cast. Certainly an attempt to film scenes in a Las Vegas location had to be halted due to intimidation. The producer appeared before the Kefauver Commission, a 1950  Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce. The film had an introductory title page on-screen,

“Because of the disclosures made in this film, powerful underworld interests tried to halt production with threats of violence and reprisal. It was only through the armed protection provided by members of the Police Department in the locales where the picture was filmed, that this story was able to reach the screen. To these men, and to the U.S. Rangers at Boulder Dam, we are deeply grateful.”

Edmund O’Brien as Mal

The film is introduced by a voice-over, not the protagonist but a policeman, Lieutenant Pete Wright [Howard St. John]. He introduces us to the crime problem and the major criminal, Mal Granger (Edmund O’Brien]. Effectively the rest of the film is a flashback charting Mal’s criminal career. At the start of the film he is a telephone repair man who indulges in a gambling. His regular bookie, Chippie (Sammy White) notes his skills and ambition and introduces him to the Vince Walters (Barry Kelley) who runs a gambling network in Los Angles and California,. Walker’s gambling network uses a legal wire service to provide information illegally to bookies, also working illegally. May, skilled and intelligent, adapts new technology to Walter’s system and increases his turn-over and profits. Mal is affable but also ambitious; and as the plot develops it becomes apparent that he is also ruthless in pursuit of wealth and women. On joining Walters Mal dumps his current girlfriend and takes up with one of Walters’ staff, Trudi (Dorothy Patrick). Later he dumps Trudi when he meets Gail Mason (Joanne Dru). Equally ruthless is his response when Walters is shot by an embittered ex-bookie: he takes over the network and ups the charges made to his clients. But Mal’s success brings him to the attention of a larger East Coast operation headed by Carl Stevens (Otto Kruger). Stevens is smart and debonair and leaves the violence underlying the syndicate’s control to henchman.

His assistant is Larry Mason (Don Porter) who is married to Gail. Gail is used as part of an entrapment, a trope repeated in the later Heist (2001). But Mal and Gail fall in love, or at least develop a consuming passion. Mal does join the East Coast syndicate but discovers his take is not what he expected. ‘Killing two birds with one stone’ he arranges for Larry to be murdered by a paid assassin, Gizzi (Robert Osterloh). He then uses his technical know-how to construct an alibi. But this breaks down and he becomes the target of both police and gangsters.

Larry and Gail

The climax of the film is at the Boulder Dam [actually the Hoover Dam] sited on the border between California and Arizona. Mal believes if he crosses the state line he will be out of police jurisdiction. The couple attempt to flee over the dam and then down into the inner working, pass great turbines and up and down winding corridors and stairwells. This is exciting stuff and really well done. Predictably, in a film adhering to official moral codes, Mal is fated.

The film is a well executed Hollywood crime thriller. Some sources describe it as a film noir but, as the Introduction pointed out, it is actually a ‘crime syndicate film’. This is an early example of the cycle which includes a film like Underworld USA (1961). This film does have a fated protagonist, but the voice-over is not confessional, the flashback is just one narration, there is little in the way of chiaroscuro and there is not a fully formed femme fatale. It does have the organised crime syndicate, the rise and fall of a criminal, and an interesting focus on the role of modern technology.

The film is dominated by the performance of Edmund O’Brien as Mal. This is a bravura characterisation as we watch him develop from an apparently easy-going and affable guy to a ruthless crime boss. The passion that develops between him and Gail seems unlikely given their preceding behaviour, but both make it convincing. Otto Krueger is also very good as the slick syndicate boss. The police are not that developed in the script which rather undermines the moral project of the film: as so often is the case criminals seem more interesting.

The film’s style is conventional but well executed. There is a lot of location work, a development in Hollywood productions in this period. These include both Los Angeles [including Sunset Boulevard] and [briefly] Las Vegas; a baseball stadium and Malibu where Mal gets himself an up-market apartment. Apparently this address, number 711 in Ocean Drive, gives the film its title but I do not remember seeing the actual address in the film. Franz Planer’s cinematography and Bert Jordan’s editing are both excellent. The long sequence at the dam has a developing rhythm and some fine shots both above and inside the dam. The music by Sol Kaplan seems fine though I found it obtrusive at time but conventions have changed since the 1950s.

So this was an enjoyable evening with a rare treat in visiting the Library’s cinema. If you are in Washington be sure to check the programme and visit if you can.

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The Third Murder / Sandome no satsujin, Japan 2017

Posted by keith1942 on April 7, 2018

This is the new film from Koreeda Hirokazu. Whilst it is not his best title it is the best new release that I have seen so far this year. The story is rather different from those of his well-known family dramas though it is thematically linked to them through the focus on fathers. As the title suggests the film explores a killing. Misumi (Yakusho Kôji) has been arrested and charged with the murder and robbery of his former employer, Yamanaka: seen only briefly in a depiction of the murder. Shigemori Tomoaki (Fukuyama Masaharu) is a lawyer recruited onto the defence team. Misumi has previously been in prison for a double murder committed thirty years earlier. Shigemori’s task is not to clear Misumi but to reduce the charge of murder and burglary to murder and theft, the lesser charge likely to save him from the death penalty.

Whilst the plot seems to be a legal drama the focus is equally on the relationship between lawyer and suspect. Shigemori investigates not just the circumstances of the crime but the background of Misumi and of the family of the victim. All three men [accused, lawyer, victim) are fathers with a daughter. Misumi and Shigemori both hail from the northern province of Hokkaido, though both left there years before. And both suffer from guilt feelings over their family failures.

When Shigemori joins the legal team his colleague Settsu Daisuke (Yoshida Kotaro) tells him that Misumi is unreliable, confessing to the murder but changing his account of this several times. The lawyer suffers a similar experience when he interviews his client. And he finds that the victim’s family members , the wife Yamanaka Mitsue (Saito Yuki) and daughter Yamanaka Sakie (Hirose Suzu), also change their accounts of the background to the crime.

The location of the murder and the trial escaped me but a colleague [Trevor Norkett] identified the settings. The main story is set in coastal city of Kawasaki, south west and not that distant from Tokyo. A second setting is in a suburb of the Tokyo Metropolis, Chōfu. It seems the actual crime was committed on the banks of the Tama River, which runs close to Kawasaki and on to Tokyo. However, both Shigemori and Misumi originally come from Hokkaido, a northern island and prefecture, noted for its cold and wintry climate: Tokyo and Kawasaki are in central japan with milder climates. Shigemori’s father, Shigemori Akihisa (Hashizume Isao), is a retied judge who actually presided over the trial of Misumi for the earlier murders. In discussions with his son the judge regrets not imposing the death penalty at the time. Shigemori visits Hiroo and then Rumoi, the latter a small sub-prefecture where the earlier murders occurred. He fails though to find Misumi’s daughter who has moved away. We do see her in a flashback by Misumi, with them both lying in the snow. She, like Sakie, has a disabled leg. And a shot of Misumi and Sakie in the snow in another flashbacks emphasises the parallel between the two women.

As the film progresses the focus closes in slowly but surely on the two men, lawyer and accused. Whilst other characters are interesting it seems that their function is to illuminate the standpoint of the two fathers. Shigemori is separated and has a fourteen year old daughter. We only see her briefly but it is clear that Shigemori feels guilty about failing her. Thus there is a rapprochement between the two leads which follows from their roles as fathers. Here the film continues the thematic concentration in Koreeda’s work on families. In his films families demonstrate a line of dialogue given to Shigemori by his judge/father, that even family members do not really know their own: applicable to the memorable Still Walking (Aruitemo aruitemo, 2008).

The plot actually works more like a legal thriller than a family drama. In an online interview Koreeda made the following comments:

So, I was talking to a friend, who is a lawyer, one day and in Japan the truth is that the court is not a place where the truth is pursued. The lawyer was saying, “yeah it’s kind of a problem that we are not pursuing to find out the truth of what’s happened.” So, I asked him “what was it that he did?” and he said, “we’re there to make adjustments to the conflict of interest.” I mean, I don’t know if addressing the conflict of interest is more of a common way of thinking in the west, but many people in Japan, they believe that the court is the space in which the right thing is done and the truth is pursued. So, there was a gap between what the lawyer was telling me and how the Japanese public perceives it. With that as a backdrop, in which the courts, really, are just trying to say you’ve got a conflict of interest, how can we remedy that or adjust it or fix it or something like that. Going from that and saying, “okay, what would happen if a lawyer really started wanting to know the truth?”

The search for truth and meaning is a recurring theme in the films. The developing relationship between lawyer and client, one that sees the lawyer increasingly treating Misumi as an equal person, leads to a possible grasping of the truth of the crime. Only possibly because right to the end the film maintains the ambiguities of testimony and recollection.

Koreeda scripted, directed and edited the film. It has a different rhythm from his family dramas. There are still the long shots and long takes but the cutting is at time relatively fast. The cinematography, in colour and an i/scope frame, by Takimoto Mikiya is very effective. There is excellent use of the full letter-box. There are some splendid night-time sequences with the changing reflections from a fire. At several points there are dramatic overhead shots which point up our observation of the protagonists. And then at the climax and resolution of the film there is a long superimposition which looks great and which suggests what may underlie the characters’ actions. The music by Einaudi Ludovico fills out the drama and characterisations. Whilst generically the film seems to be a court room drama Einaudi’s frequent use of a piano, along with a guitar and electronic instruments, concentrates our attention for much of the time on the psychology of the characters.

The film was shot digitally and looked fine on the DCP I saw. In Britain the film is distributed by Arrow and it was a better transfer than their earlier Une Vie (2017) though that was from 35mm. Unfortunately the film seems to have very limited release: I saw it in Sheffield. There is only one venue screening in Leeds. Given the quality of the recent output by Koreeda Hirokazu this does seem to be a failure by exhibitors.

 

Posted in Japanese film | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Room for Let / Kashima ari, 1959

Posted by keith1942 on March 28, 2018

This was a title in the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme screened at the Sheffield Showroom. I think this was the only title screened from 35mm. a good quality black and white print in Toho-Scope with clear English sub-titles.  The film was directed by Kawashima Yūzō, a director whose work I had not seen before. He was born in 1918 so this is his centenary year.

Alexander Jacoby [‘A Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors’, 2008) notes,

“Little known outside Japan, the wry, wild work of Yuzo Kawashima is the missing link between the classical Japanese cinema of the fifties ands the modernism of the sixties.”

Kwashima started out at Shochiku in the war years. He only achieved a reputation in the 1950s when he moved to Nikkatsu. On a number of his films his assistant and script-writer was Imamura Shōhei. Hi worked in a variety of genres but his most notable films were comedies, a mixture of satire and farce. ‘Room for Let’ is, apparently, his most characteristic.

The film certainly mixed comedy and farce and [I suspect] a certain amount of satire on 1950s society. The film is set in a multi-room single storey tenement on a hill overlooking the city of Osaka. There are some fine views of the cityscape. The film, to a degree; follows the actions of the various tenants living in the house.

“a barbed hilarious portrait of the mostly disreputable characters inhabiting an Osaka boarding house .” [Japan Foundation Programme notes].

This sort of drama, showing the interactions of tenants in a multi-room establishment, is familiar in South Asian cinema, and there are a number of examples in Chinese and Japanese films.

The film does have key protagonists. One is Goro (Sakai Frankie), a jack-of-all-trades around whom the other characters revolve. Opposite him is Yumiko (Awashima, Chikage), a potter who rents the vacant room. She is an independent and strong-minded character, as are the majority of female characters in this film.

The ‘room for let’ provides a mechanism for the development in the plots But it is the interactions between the various tenants that provides the comedy. This is often unseemly and the sexual aspect if fairly explicit. The comedy develops slowly. Early on the film has a wry quality, but as the drama develops the tone becomes farcical. There is a splendid sequence as most of the tenants are involved in or observing Goro’s panic-stricken response to a forceful women tenant.

At the same time there are notes of disquiet. A young woman who services some older men in her room suffers the indignity of exposure to her family. Her suicide and the following mourning ritual is sombre.

The cast is excellent, striking just the right note this side of farce for much of the film. Their characters and idiosyncrasies are presented entirely convincingly. The cinematography by Okazaki Kôzô is finely done. He makes great use of the scope frame and there are some fine dollies in the interiors and some fine tracking shots in the exteriors. The music by Manabe    Riichirô for much of the time has a suitably jaunty quality which sets off the often racy visuals.

This is the first Japanese film farce that I have seen and it struck me as surprising but extremely funny. The set pieces are a real pleasure to watch. Unfortunately there were only about a dozen in the audience for this screening. I have travelled to Sheffield on several occasions for the Japan Foundation touring programme, the audiences have always been small. This is a shame. Their programmes are interesting. And the 35mm prints I have seen so far have been good quality. Britain seems to be a less friendly place for both ‘reel’ film and for Asian cinema. I am currently having to hunt round to find a screening of the new Kore-eda Hirokazu film, The Third Murder / Sandome no satsujin.

 

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Tokyo Twilight (Tokyo Boshoku, 1957)

Posted by keith1942 on March 20, 2018

This title, directed by Ozu Yasujiro, was screened in this year’s Berlinale Classics. The film is in Ozu’s standard academy ratio and black and white. This was the premiere of a restored version screened from a 4K DCP. It is in a number of ways typical of late Ozu; the regular low angle camera; the deep focus and staging; the focus on props within the frame; the insertion of what are called ‘pillow shots’, brief sequences that are not obviously part of the developing plot; and the ‘lounge music’ which sounds non-Japanese in this most Japanese of directors.

But the plot was unusual for Ozu, involving marital discord, an extra-marital affair (safely in the past) and a troubled young woman who is pregnant and has to consider abortion. Yet this plot is made partly typical with Ryu Chishu as a single-parent father Sugiyama Shukichi and a manager in a bank with Hara Setsuko as Numata Takako, the dutiful daughter, though again, unusually, she is married and has a baby daughter. Takako has returned home to seek refuge from her husband Numata Yasuo (Shin Kinzo) who drinks and is frequently violent. Akiko (Arima Imeko) is the youngest daughter. She is described as ‘wild’ by other characters. During the film she spends much time seeking out her current boyfriend, Kenji (Taura Masami); and a regular haunt is a mah-jongg parlour, where people play and gamble. It is Akiko’s plight and the reappearance of her long-lost mother, Soma Kikuko (Yamada Isuzu), that provides the dramatic focus of the narrative.

The Brochure offered:

“This largely-unknown work is considered Ozu’s darkest post-war film . . . ”

Wim Wenders gave an introduction to the film; his comments were given in German but I noticed that he used the term ‘noir’ at one point. And shadows and low-key lighting feature in many scenes.

One theme in the film is late 1950s Japanese youth, seen here as breaking with the mores of the older generation. This is a thematic that is found in the films of Oshima Nagisa but it is unusual for Ozu. The use of low-class and unseemly settings would be more typical of Naruse Mikio, but this version is replete with the resignation that typifies Ozu. It seems that Ozu and his long-time collaborator Noda Kogo were responding to the new youth films then appearing in Japan. But the story is atypical of their work and is fairly melodramatic. Apparently it was the least successful of Ozu’s title in this period. The central plight of Akiko is some way from the situations that suit Ozu’s reflective style.

In terms of values the film is dominated by Shukichi. The final scene focuses on him and Takako. At this point she has decided to return to her husband with their daughter, prompted by the fate of Akiko and stressing that a child needs ‘both parents’. Kikuko meanwhile has left Tokyo and we see her on the departing train vainly hoping that Takako will come to see her off. Together these scenes put the blame on the mother as indeed does Takako at one point. But since we only hear brief details of the marital breakdown and not from her point of view I found this problematic. Shukichi’s treatment of Akiko is cold and distant and it would seem likely that this is also a factor. Akiko appears to be trapped in a home that espouses traditional values, in opposition to the young values that she holds. I think Naruse would have offered a more sympathetic treatment of the mother and a stronger grasp of the lower class milieu.

Ozu works here with regular collaborators including the joint script-writer Noda Kogo. Atsuta Yoharu provides the cinematography which is finely done. The film is as absorbing as Ozu’s other late films. However, I did think that the structure was not quite as finely tuned. There is a scene in the mah-jongg parlour where the players discuss Akiko. The scene is clearly designed to inform the audience of aspects of her situation that are hinted at rather than made explicit. However, by this stage these seemed to me fairly obvious and I found the scene redundant: an unusual feeling in a film by Ozu.

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The Post (USA/India 2017) with a Q&A

Posted by keith1942 on February 4, 2018

This is the new film directed by Steven Spielberg. It recounts that actual events [not completely accurately] around the publication of a set of secret documents that detailed the history of the war by the Unites States against Vietnam up until 1966. These documents revealed that, among other failings, the US administration, including Presidents, had lied to the US people. The film presents the story of how The Washington Post, with limited acknowledgement of The New York Times who actually broke the story, published parts of The Papers and successfully defended this in the Supreme Court of the USA. The film’s focus is primarily on the owner of the publishing company, Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep); a company that owned other media including television stations. The other key character is the then editor of The Washington Post, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks). Less centrally we see Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), who leaked the documents; Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), then Secretary of Defence, who commission The Papers; various journalists and,. briefly, workers at the paper, opponents of the Vietnam War and, in reverse shots through a window, President Nixon (Curzon Dobell).

On Sunday January 28th the Hyde Park screened the title followed by a Q&A led by Granville Williams. This rather made up for every screening bar one in that week [Jupiter’s Moon on Tuesday] on the cinema’s single screen was this drama. Granville Williams is an experienced writer and commentator on the Media and the Press. For a long time he was the editor of the FreePress of the Campaign for Freedom in the Press and Media. Over a hundred people turned up for the screening and about half of them stayed for the Q&A.

Granville introduced the discussion with some background on the events depicted in the film. He commented that there were a selection of films that portrayed journalist in an ‘honourable’ light. He mentioned All the President’s Men (1976), Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) and Spotlight (2015). Not in the same class but also recent was State of Play (2009), inferior to the original British television version. Of course, classic Hollywood had a whole cycle of films about conscientious, determined and ‘freedom loving’ journalists: think Frank Capra and Howard Hawks.

Granville made the point that The Post does not offer a proper focus on the role of The New York Times. Moreover, The Washington Post, as the film characters tell us, was not national paper in the same way as The Times at this point. But in addition The Post only joined the criticisms of the US war in Vietnam in 1969.

Granville was not convinced by the characterisation of Katharine Graham in the film. The portrayal shows her as frequently hesitant, which was not his sense of the actual person. When she took over the company after the death of her husband [a nasty-sounding type) and her son, she started to change the paper. It was she that recruited Ben Bradlee as editor. Granville also reckoned that the actual Bradlee was more motivated by competition with The New York Times than the liberal cause; a point only slightly proposed in the film. And Granville lamented that since then both The Times and The Post had sunk to supporting the US military adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq.

One of the aspects of the film that did impress him was the focus on the actual process of printing the paper. But later shareholder pressure, [the film shows the company going ‘public’ on Wall Street] led to the introduce of new technology. There was a long strike in 1975 through 1976 which Granville compared to the events at Wapping organised by the Murdoch Press. And he noted that late in her life Graham supported Ronald Reagan.

Granville got a well deserved round of applause for this introduction and then we had some questions and comments by members of the audience.

A woman commented on the decline of the US provincial press, papers which are briefly referenced in the film, and noted that critical journalism on the war in Afghanistan tended to be in books rather than the mainstream media.

Granville gave an example of books produced by journalists, remarking that because much of this reportage was not aired on television the journalist had to rely on book publishing to recount their stories. He gave an example of one involving the USA where missiles supposedly supplied to the Mujahidin ended up in other hands. Regarding the provincial press in the USA he noted that this was a pale shadow of it former self.

A man asked about The New York Times’ role and compared the press role then and the seemingly chaotic media coverage in the USA today.

Granville praised the high standards that operated in The Times at this period. He noted that issues like ‘fake news’ were part of the problems in the USA media. But he pointed out there were still alternative press and media.

Another audience member commented that the crisis in journalism was not just in the USA but globally. He opined that there was also a crisis in the recruitment of a new generation of journalists which exacerbated problems. Granville concurred with this and cited the developments in Russia.

An earlier questioner returned to the state of the US press and regretted the demise of what was an array of ‘afternoon papers’ in the USA. She did though, see a ‘ray of light’ in the British Financial Times’ exposé of the events at the Presidents’ Club.

Granville picked up on the issue of ‘good journalism’. He noted a US report which showed that the number of major media corporations in the USA had reduced from 50 in 1953 to only 5 in 2004. He also noted similar problems in Britain and cited the increasing monopoly in the regional press.

Another questioner asked about the issue of ‘fake news’ and how this related to the representation of social groups in the newspaper industry in the USA.

Granville responded that there was a class division in the contemporary readership. The press mainly catered for the rich and affluent classes, exemplified in the type of advertising which catered for the well-off. He felt that a good newspaper should be rooted in communities. He noted how The Washington Post, even in it heyday, catered for the Washington elite. He gave as an example in Britain the Daily Mirror. Though he did not approve of Piers Morgan it should be noted that when he was editor, the paper opposed the military aggression in Iraq. The only other papers to do so were The Independent and The Guardian. He reckoned this was very much to do with The Mirror’s relationship to its readership. It was a paper that addressed work and working people.

I raised three points here. One was the failure of the film to represent the workers at The Post in any meaningful way. There was the almost complete absence of any representation of the Vietnamese People against whom the illegal war was waged. And I also suggested that The Post and The Times did not oppose the war per se but only the misconduct and cover-up by administrations.

Granville broadly agreed. He told a story about a CBS reporter who intervened when US soldiers were threatening to ‘incinerate’ Vietnamese woman and children. His employer, CBS, agonized over whether to run the story or not. When they did run the story, in a telephone call that mirrored scenes in the film, a White House aide rang and complained the network had ‘shit on the American Flag’. Granville went on to point out how the draft was class divided: working class recruits, frequently black, went to die in Vietnam whilst more affluent youngsters were able to avoid this.

The session wrapped up then with an appreciation of Granville’s presentation and responses.

I found this session following the film very helpful in getting to grips with the issues involved. My impression after the screening, including comments by other members of the audience, was that the majority were impressed with the film. I was not. Even as cinema I had lots of reservations. The film struck me as extremely conventional. For example, after the main title there is the whir and thump of a helicopter on the sound track and then it is 1966 and we see ‘grunts’ [US soldiers] forming up at a camp in Vietnam. There follows a night ‘firefight’ with the Viet Cong, merely shadows among the trees firing at the US squad. There is a cut to daytime and there is Daniel Ellsberg siting in the open at a typewriter on a makeshift desk. Where have I seen and heard this before?

There follows a sequence on a US plane flying from Vietnam. Ellsberg is called by Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara to support his claim that the war is going badly. But when the plane lands McNamara tells the assembled Press that the conduct of the war ‘exceeds our expectations’.

By 1969 Ellsberg is working at the RAND Corporation and has access to the report that McNamara commissioned on the history of the war in Vietnam, i.e. ‘The Pentagon Papers’. We see him smuggling out parts of this voluminous report and then, with help, photocopying pages whilst another man cuts off the ‘Top Secret’ titling on each page. This is the point in the film when the audience are given a sense of what is in these papers. This is a typical Hollywood trope; shots of sections of pages and particular paragraphs. It is a sort of montage just giving viewers snippets. It reminded me of a similar sequence in Reds (1981) where a potentially interesting discussion between John Reed (Warren Beatty) and Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton) is reduced to a series of snippets devoid of serious political content.

Several people have remarked that one needs a sense of ‘The Pentagon Papers’ to follow the early part of the film, as it fails to give a thorough presentation. This rather glib approach re-appears later in the film. The Washington Post receives copies of those parts of the papers purloined by Ellsberg. The editor and a group of journalist sort through these, under a deadline pressure, sifting out information for a major report. In this scene the papers are all mixed up and the journalists have to try and sort them. I found this odd. Given the type of character Ellsberg was this seems rather unlikely. Moreover it works as a way of producing more snippets from the papers. Individual journalists call out sentences of note from the papers, other journalist respond and add to this. It is melee of quotes that damn different Presidents but do not really give the overall sense, apart from a the recurring sense of administration lies and cover-ups. They do point the finger at all the Presidents, and we see their images at one point on screen: Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and, now Nixon.

A major problem in the film follows from the way that the story is scripted. The original script was by Liz Hannah. This was worked over by Josh Singer. Spielberg does not have a script credits but he appears to have had some input here. The story focuses on The Washington Post and in particular the owner at this period [it was a family owned company] Katherine Graham. This choice immediately side-lines the role of The New York Times. Ellsberg initially pass the copies of the papers to a Times journalist, It was the New York Times that broke the story and was taking to court by the administration. The Supreme Court decision in this case involved both The New York Times and The Washington post. In fact, The Times was the paper that won a Pulitzer prize for its reporting of the issue.

So the central character in the film is Katherine Graham, owner of the publishing company. In what seems to be the influence of current gender concerns in the industry the film presents Graham as a woman resisting masculine hegemony in a world dominated by men. So at Board meetings Graham, despite being officially in control, is side-lined and patronised by the suited male members. The characters is written as repressed by this dominance but gradually emerging and exercising authority. Granville used the term ‘hesitant’ to describe the character. He questioned whether this was accurate: characterising her as powerful and decisive. I was unconvinced by the characterisation in the course of the film, it did not seem to fit. Whilst Streep does give a fine performance it also seemed rather mannered; she does have that tendency. In some scenes it reminded me of her performance in Florence Foster Jenkins (2016).

Another point is interesting. Granville commented on her now dead husband. Apparently at one point he had a very public affair with another woman, which was a humiliating experience for Graham in the closed circles of the Washington elite. That seems an aspect that would have fitted current Academe concerns. As it is the film overdoes the issue of gender. After the Supreme Court hearing we see Graham wending her way through a crowd of young, smiling women: no men in sight. That might happen in 2017, it seems much less likely in 1973.The film spends quite a lot of time on the issue of The Post going public, i.e. opening up the company to investors beyond the family and selling these on the Wall Street Stock Exchange. Thus brings an added set of pressures on the paper and on Graham. We see several board meetings where Graham is patronised by the male members and where they also oppose the paper’s reporting of The Pentagon Papers as likely to undermine the business. The film takes this type of capitalist system for granted. There is not really a questioning of either family control of a media business and the question of financial control is not addressed. There is a sort irony here because the film is distributed by Fox Searchlight, part of a prime example of a family controlled media empire. I did wonder if I should boo when the Fox Searchlight logo appeared.

The film also spends time on the family life of Graham and of her editor Bradlee. Graham’s daughter is shown as supportive and there are references to the dead husband and son. In Bradlee’s case we see his young daughter, a budding entrepreneur who makes dollars selling lemonade to the working journalists; a missed opportunity for irony. None of the other characters enjoy this sort of personal background, certainly not Ellsberg, who we learn in dialogue has recently married.

I also had reservations about the characterisation of Ben Bradlee. In the early stages we get sense of how important is the competitive aspect with The New York Times for The Post editor. But in the later stages and by the climax the emphasis is on Press Freedom and the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. The role does not effect the sharp edge that Newspaper editors need, brilliantly done by Jason Robards as the same character in All The Presidents’ Men and also well done by John Slattery as Ben Bradlee Jr. in Spotlight. Tom Hanks does a fair job with the role and I think the weakness is in the writing. There is a scene with Graham and Bradlee as they survey set of regional titles now carrying reports on The Papers. This is an example of collective defence but their main response is that it demonstrates that The Post has arrived as a ‘national newspaper’.

In fact the film does not develop journalistic practices as effectively as the other films mentioned. The only journalist/editor whose work we see in some detail is Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk), who was the paper’s staff member who actually received The Papers from Ellsberg. But even here little space is giving to his journalistic work in reporting this. That is an aspect, as with journalist investigation that both All The President’s Men and Spotlight do very well. There is little of this in The Post. The scene that I mentioned earlier where Bradlee and a team sort through The Papers does not have much of a journalistic flavour and is more concerned with presenting notable snippets to viewers.

NOR_D14_061617_026541.raf

The same applies to the print workers at the paper. We get a series of close-ups of the machinery as the reports are printed. However, the shot of the print workers are mainly long-shots and only concerned with their actions, at the machinery or loading the printed papers onto lorries. There is one shot where the workers pick up the printed newspapers as they stream from the machinery, but there is no indication of their responses. A comparable sequence in the British political thriller Defence of the Realm (1986) does offer some characterisation of the print-workers on a British paper.

A similar problem applies to the other ordinary workers we see in the film. We do get a slight cameo from a secretary as Graham attends the Supreme Court for the hearings. But this scene seems mainly designed to reinforce the message re gender, as the secretary complains about her boss, a Senator,.

The ‘grunts’ in the opening sequence do a little better. We hear their dialogue, but this is so that we know that Daniel Ellsberg is going with them into the jungle. Here, in a night scene, we get our single look at the Vietnamese, shadows behind trees and foliage firing at the US soldiers. The peace groupings opposed to the war do little better. We see a protest where just about everyone is dressed like hippies and as a man takes up a microphone: we cut to another scene. I could not see any of the Vietnam veterans, already s significant force by this stage.

And we see only glimpses of the Supreme Court Justices, the event that the whole of the previous film has been leading up to. The decision is actually heard own a telephone as a breathless woman office worker calls out the result. President Nixon does somewhat better than these social groupings. We see and hear him several times, in a reverse shot as he stands by a White House window talking down the telephone; these lines seem some of the most accurate in the film and are presumably taken from the infamous tape recordings.

Individually, many of these decisions in the film could be justified. However, overall it renders the storytelling extremely conventional. The focus of gender is fine, but it denies space to equally important issues such as class and imperial xenophobia. It apparently also denies space to anti-racism. There were some black faces, including among the ‘grunts’. But they were not noticeable on The Post. Yet Granville pointed out that, due to the Civil Rights movement, by this stage the paper had recruited a number of young Afro-Americans. The treatment also undermines generic features,. Several critics describe the films as ‘political thriller’. But I found the story, even in the sequences meant to generate tension, lacking in this. Many of the audience will know from history that The Post [and the New York Times] won the battle. So the lengthy sequences where the editor and his journalists or Graham and her board members debate the issuer lacked tension over the outcome.

This is matter of style. Spotlight was a film where many of us knew the outcome but the film still generated tension in certain sequences. Spotlight also effectively gave voice to the victims of Church abuse. This, as I suggest, is missing in The Post. And it is missing in the treatment of Ellsberg. We only find out in the dialogue that he was recently married when these event occurred. He does not receive the family context awarded to Graham and Bradlee. Much of the film was predictable including the closing shots, the Watergate Building as the staff discover the burglars sent by the White House. This is an unfortunate choice. It reminds viewers of the fine political thriller, All the Presidents’ Men. That is a film that dramatises a parallel story, present journalist practice very effectively, ramps up the tension in many sequences, and is able to give viewers a clear sense of the crimes perpetrated.

The Post was put together when another Spielberg project fell through. Apparently it was made relativity fast. This may account for the main weak aspects of the film. It compares unfavourably with other treatments. A particularly good example is The Most Dangerous Man in America.: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers [the first part of the title is a quote by Henry Kissinger, [another participants never bought to justice]. This is a documentary partially narrated by Ellsberg himself. It was written by Lawrence Lerew & Rick Goldsmith & Judith Ehrlich & Michael Chandler. The film was directed by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith for Goldsmith’s company Kovno Communications. It premiered in the USA on Public Broadcast Television and has been seen at festivals and on national television networks. It won an Academy Award as Best Documentary.

The film covers a lot of matters left out in The Post. We learn much more about Ellsberg, his career and his motivations. The story of The New York Times is fully presented. And the events that follows between publication in the two papers and the Supreme Court hearings are filled in. Thus it becomes clear that Ellsberg passed The Pentagon Papers to other new outlets who also printed them. And we see a US Senator, Mike Gravel, who read extensive extracts from The Papers into the Congressional record.

Some of the scenes, like that between Ellsberg and McNamara flying back from Vietnam, are extremely similar: both part of the record. But Ellsberg experiences in Vietnam and researching the war is presented in an extensive fashion. Even here it is difficult give a comprehensive sense of the exposure but it is fuller than in the Hollywood version. And in a small but significant scene we see the print-workers at The Post congratulating each other as the newspapers, with the reports, stream off the machines.

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Granville also prepared some notes prior to the screening which include some of the books he mentioned:

The Post in an honourable addition to Hollywood films All The Presidents Men (1976), Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), Spotlight (2015)) which portray journalists and journalism in a positive way, as opposed to grubby hacks chasing squalid, sensational headlines .

When I see films like these I wonder why UK film directors haven’t tackled such subjects. Couldn’t the dogged work of Guardian journalist, Nick Davies, as he probed and finally exposed the industrial scale of phone-hacking at Murdoch’s News of the World, be a suitable subject?

The credits for The Post say it is ‘based on a true story’ and whilst I can quibble with the way the film modifies some of the facts about the way the Washington Post’s publisher, Katharine Graham, finally came to back publication of the Pentagon Papers, I think the film captures perfectly how enmeshed she was in the Washington elite and the political and commercial pressures on her to take an easier route, and not publish the papers.

I will talk more about this in the Q&A session following the 5.00pm showing of the film on Sunday 28 January at the Hyde Park Picture House. Here I just want to develop a couple of points about two aspects of the film.

One is the way that Spielberg focuses on the old hot metal printing press scenes and the workings of the Linotype machines assembling the lines of type for the stories. It’s very evocative.

In 1975 after Watergate there was a ferocious strike by printers which set her and the newspaper on a conservative course. Graham devoted dozens of pages in her autobiography Personal History to vilifying Post press operators who went on strike in 1975. She stressed the damage done to printing equipment as the walkout began and “the unforgivable acts of violence throughout the strike.”

John Hanrahan, a Newspaper Guild member at the Post, wouldn’t cross the picket lines and never went back. He pointed out,

“The Washington Post under Katharine Graham pioneered the union-busting ‘replacement worker’ strategy that Ronald Reagan subsequently used against the air-traffic controllers and that corporate America — in the Caterpillar, Bridgestone/Firestone and other strikes — used to throw thousands of workers out of their jobs in the 1980s and the ’90s.”

The other point is on the role of Ben Bagdikian in the film – he’s the journalist who gets access to Daniel Ellsberg and persuades him to hand over 4000 pages for the Post to use. He was national editor on the Post, a man who the editor, Ben Bradlee, in his autobiography, ‘A Good Life’, describes as ‘thorny’. Bagdikian had a big influence on me, and others interested in media reform. He wrote a key book ‘The Media Monopoly’ (1983) which warned about the chilling effects of corporate ownership and mass advertising on US media. Fifty corporations owned most of the US media when he wrote the first edition. By the time he wrote ‘The New Media Monopoly’ (2004) it had dwindled to five.

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Granville made a mention of Ken Burns documentary series The Vietnam War (2017), which has been screened on BBC 4. However, it should be noted that the original was 18 hours of archive material and comment. The version transmitted by the BBC only ran a little over nine hours. Worse, at no point did the BBC publicity or announcements point out that this was a truncated version.

Posted in History on film, Hollywood, Movies with messages | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

The Giant / Kyojinden, Japan 1938

Posted by keith1942 on January 23, 2018

This film was part of the programme of ‘The Japanese Period Film in the Valley of Darkness’ at Il Cinema Ritrovato in 2017. The ‘Valley of Darkness’ was the period in the 1930s when Japan was under militaristic rule. So the films in this programme were examples of liberal and critical cinema. The notes by Alexander Jacoby and Johan Nordström explained

here, he [the director Itami Mansaku] relocated ‘Les Misérables’ to Kyushi and the era of the Satsuma Rebellion. Victor Hugo’s novel was a totemic one for liberal Japanese intellectuals in the early twentieth century, and its anti-authoritarian and humanist sentiments were daring in the age of militarism.”

The ‘Satsuma Rebellion’ was a key event following the ‘Meiji restoration of 1868. This ushers in the period of modernisation in Japan. Wikipedia has a detailed article on the Rebellion:

“The Satsuma Rebellion (西南戦争 Seinan Sensō, “Southwestern War”) was a revolt of disaffected samurai against the new imperial government, nine years into the Meiji Era. Its name comes from Satsuma Domain, which had been influential in the Restoration and became home to unemployed samurai after military reforms rendered their status obsolete. The rebellion lasted from January 29, 1877, until September of that year, when it was decisively crushed and its leader, Saigō Takamori, committed seppuku after being mortally wounded.”

This was a key event in modern Japanese history. Intriguingly three of the films in the Ritrovato programme were set round this event. It would seem that it had particular relevance in a period dominated by the military and in which the military and right-wing grouping constantly referred to the values associated with the Samurai.

The film opens well into the story of the convict protagonist. In a small town we find crowds celebrating, food stalls and brass bands: the occasion is the unveiling of a bust of the Mayor. The Mayor, Onuma (Okochi Denjiro), arrived ‘from somewhere up north’ and has benefited the town. Onuma meets the ‘the new man’ with the police, Sogabe Yajiro (Maruyama Sadao), who feels that ‘we’ve met before’. The celebrations are interrupted by a fire and a man trapped in the flames. A barred window prevents his rescue but Onuma breaks in and carries shim to safety. The rescue causes Sogabe to comment that

“only one man could free him’ in that way.”

We now have one of the several flashback sin the film. Onuma was at one time imprisoned on Toro Island and made to work as forced labour in a mine. His original sentence had extended by attempted escapes to nineteen years. But he tries again, killing a guard in the process, Travelling on the road he is given food and shelter by a priest (Shiome Yo) in a small temple. Sanpei repays his hospitality by stealing a candlestick, but this one is gold rather than silver. Caught and bought back to the Temple by the police, Sanpei is saved when the priest provides his alibi. As Sanpei leaves with two candlesticks the priest essays

“Promise me, starting today, you won’t do anything wrong”.

Sanpei will be true to the promise he gives, we even have the scene where he is guilt-struck after purloining a young boy’s coin.

Years on Sanpei, now Onuma, has become the Mayor and is a wealthy and respected citizen. Sogabe’s investigations lead to Onuma attending a court hearing and clearing a man wrongly suspected of being the escaped convict Sanpei. Another flashback fills out events at this point.

Onuma has also encountered the case of Ofude (Hanbusa Yuriko), hospitalised after losing her job. Despite Onuma’s care she dies. When he flees because of the discovery of his past he goes to succour her daughter Chiyo (Katagiri Hinako), in the ‘care’ of exploitative foster parents. When they move on it is with a doll that he has bought Chiyo.

 

Years later the setting is the Southern Island off Kyushi. Onuma is older and now known as Sankichi. Chiyo is now a young woman, [played by the young Hara Setsuko, a treat for Ozu fans in the audience). Her romantic object is a young English teacher, Ryoma (Sayama Ryo), who provides language lessons, [a reference to the modernization process]. The various other characters from the original have their equivalents, including Okuni (Tsutsumi Masako) as the girl sweet on Ryoma, and Goro (Imaizumi Kei) as the urchin who dies on the barricades. These are part of the rebellion in which all the characters are caught up. Sankichi has to rescue Ryoma, thus enabling the union which he initially opposed. Sogabe continuous his relentless hunt, but finally is struck by Sankichi/Onuma/Sanpei’s humanity. These events take place in canal from which Sankichi and Ryoma emerge to Chiyo’s relief. The film closes on the young couple and Sankichi and Old Seike (Osamu Takizawa), Ryoma’s grandfather. The latter jokes that one should

“’Give your children the dolls they like’.

At which the two men laugh.

It will be clear that the film is fairly faithful to the Hugo novel. The opening, set at the point when Sogabe once more encounters Sanpei/Onuma, is very effective: as are the flashbacks that fill in the story. Where the film replaces French events and places with Japanese these are well chosen. Whilst the Rebellion may speak to 1930s Japan, in terms of the history it is the obvious conflict that is equivalent to the Paris insurrection in the novel.

The cast are good and Okochi Denjiro is splendid as the Japanese version of the immensely strong Jean Valjean. The script does not give Maruyama Sadao’s version of Javert the obsessive drive for what he considers justice, but he does effect the relentless pursuit of the convict.

The film ran for 127 minutes in a 35mm print with English subtitles. So, as with most screen versions, there is considerable compression. But, as will be clear, what many readers remember from the novel is there on screen.

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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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