Talking Pictures

Just another WordPress.com weblog

Women filmmakers at the 2019 Berlinale

Posted by keith1942 on February 6, 2019

The Berlinale, Berlin’s International Film Festival, opens this coming Thursday, February 7th. The Festival is a vast terrain with a wide selection of contemporary films from all over world cinema. The key films are often landmark titles and the Festival Awards are rightly prized trophies. But the Festival also offers opportunities to visit fascinating aspects of cinema history. The Retrospectives, organised by the Deutsche Kinematic, are singular filmic events. Last year we enjoyed a return to Weimar Cinema in an impressive and rewarding programme. And the presentations, of film in both celluloid and digital formats, were also really well done. And the silent titles enjoyed live and skilful musical accompaniments.

This year the Retrospective moves forward three decades to celebrate the contributions of women film-makers to German cinema.

“The Retrospective of the 69th Berlin International Film Festival takes as its subject women film-makers between 1968 and 1999. The programme encompasses 26 narrative and documentary features from the former East and West Germany, as well as German films after re-unification in 1990. In addition, the Retrospective will show some 20 shorter films on their own, or as lead-ins to the features. What the film-makers and their protagonists have in common is an interest in exploring their own environment, and the search for their own cinematic idiom.

In West Germany, this development was embedded in the 1968 student movement, and closely linked to the new women’s movement and the New German Cinema wave. In East Germany, by contrast, all films were made within the state-controlled studio system. That studio, DEFA, gave a few women a chance to direct as early as the 1950s, however they were mainly assigned to children’s films. Towards the end of the 1960s, everyday life in the socialist country became the focus of East Germany’s women directors. “

The length of the period covered means that this is likely to be a series of snapshots. One of the best known directors, Margarethe von Trotta, has only a single title, The German Sisters / Die bleierne Zeit (1981). This I though a welcome presentations, a film that I have not seen for a considerable period [though it currently has a limited release in Britain courtesy of the ICO) but which I remember finding powerful and stimulating.

Other well known film-makers are also featured.

“Helma Sanders-Brahms – Her early films engage critically with the themes of labour, migration, and the situation of women in West Germany. Under the Pavement Lies the Strand / Unter dem Pflaster ist der Strand (1975, Federal Republic of Germany / Bundesrepublik Deutschland) was a central film for the German women’s movement and for the student movement, as well as for the director’s own emergence as an explicitly feminist film-maker.” (Wikipedia)

But, for me, the bulk of the titles, are unknown and promise to offer an exciting exploration of German film. There has always been a limited selection of German films circulating in Britain, but in recent years hardly any cross over the channel or the territories barriers.

There will be films from four women film-makers working in the German Democratic Republic / Deutsche Demokratische Republik. I have seen only a small proportion of the films produced in the GDR. And I cannot recollect seeing a film directed by a woman. So this will fill an unfortunate gap in my film knowledge.

And there are other titles from the FGR or contemporary Germany. From the FGR in 1984,

The Image of Dorian Gray in the Yellow Press / Dorian Gray im Spiegel der Boulevardpresse.

Our organization will create a human being whom we can shape and manipulate according to our needs. Dorian Gray: young, rich and handsome. We will make him, seduce him and break him.

Director and writer: Ulrike Ottinge.” (Details on IMDB).

As well as the features and documentaries there are a number of short film, more also from the GDR. And there is animation work. So it promises to be great cinematic week.

Added to this are the regular Berlinale Classics. There are six titles, five of which I welcome seeing again and one, for me, completely new; Ung flukt (The Wayward Girl), dir: Edith Carlmar, Norway 1959. They are all digital restorations. Certainly the digital versions I saw last year were all of good quality. Moreover, several of these are in 4K versions, a quality rarely seen in Britain.

Advertisements

Posted in Festivals, German film | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Rosa Luxembourg / Die Geduld der Rosa Luxemburg, Germany 1986

Posted by keith1942 on January 22, 2019

This is one of four films directed by Margarethe von Trotta being distributed in Britain by the Independent Cinema Office. The programme is titled ‘The Personal is Political – the films of Margarethe von Trotta’. The standpoint presented in this title has some justification. In her films von Trotta most frequently focuses on a female protagonist and presents their life [or part of it] by intertwining personal experiences with social and political events. However, I would counter to this a stance of ‘the political is personal’. I do this because whilst the films portray personal relationships the stories von Trotta uses are [to varying degrees] taken from historical events. In this way the social contradictions which made these stories prominent enough to justify a commercial film structure both the public and personal events involving the characters. This film, both a biography and a celebration of one of the outstanding revolutionaries of the early C20th, seems to me clearly to demonstrate such a relationship between the political and the personal.

The film, written and directed by von Trotta, has a complex and non-linear structure. On its release critics noted [and often complained about] the difficulties of making sense of such a narrative. I think this was more noted outside of Germany. One audience member at a recent screening was seeing the film for a second time and remarked that he followed it more easily this time as he had greater knowledge of the context and background of the film’s story. Indeed when the film was released in Britain,

“The Press handout implicitly recognises this by including a helpful chronology of Rosa’s life and substantial historical background.” (Pam Cook’s review in the Monthly Film Bulletin, August 1986).

For the same reason I set out here the chronology of the film.

It opens in 1916 with Rosa in a German prison.

Following the opening credits the film cuts a Polish prison in Warsaw in 1906.

There follows a flashback showing Rosa, and her lover Leo, arriving in Poland a year earlier; with the 1905 Revolution in Russia under way.

The film cuts to 1899 as Leo joins Rosa in Berlin.

We then witness a New Year celebration at the dawn of 1900 by the Social Democratic Party of Germany (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands – SPD).

The film returns to 1906, still in Berlin, and Rosa’s relationship with the leaders of the SPD and her personal relationship with Leo.

By 1907 Rosa has moved to the left of many of the SPD leaders, including her former mentor Karl Kautsky. And her relationship with Leo changes after she learns of his affair with another communist woman.

By 1913 Rosa has become a leader of a ‘left fraction’ in the SPD. Opposing ‘revolution’ to ‘reformism’. She has begun a relationship with, Kostja, the son of her friend Clara Zetkin. And she meets Paul Levi, a lawyer and to become another lover. She is tried by the German Authorities for ‘inflammatory behaviour’ in her opposition to the coming European war.

In 1914 she is working with Karl Liebknecht, another anti-imperialist war revolutionary. But the SPD supports the 1914 war by voting credits in the German parliament.

In 1916 Rosa is arrested and imprisoned. On release she and Liebknecht found The Spartacist League (Spartakusbund).

By 1916 she is back in prison where she remains till the end of the war. We see her visited by friends, in particular Liebknecht’s partner Sonya.

On release in 1918 she and Liebknecht, supported by Leo and others, return to revolutionary activity. Revolutionary actions by the German working class force an end to the war and the declaration of a republic with the SPD taking power. At this point the film interweaves it fictionalised portrayal [in colour] with black and white archive film from the period.

An uprising, led by the Spartacists, [who at the start of 1919 became the Communist Party of Germany / Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands] is suppressed by the Government using right-wing volunteer militia, the Freikorps, [proto-fascist organisation]. Rosa and Liebknecht are murdered. Rosa body is thrown in a Berlin canal.

The film ends though Rosa ‘s body was later recovered and given a proper burial.

This cutting back and forth can be followed but the actual period and characters have to be either recognised or surmised. It is only after several scenes in which she appears that Clara Zetkin is identified by her full name. Other characters like Karl Kautsky or August Bebel are identified by name and the dialogue gives a sense of their relevance to the events. But organisations such as the Second International, which Rosa attends at one point, probably need the viewer to already understand where they fit in events and political contest.

Rosa Luxemburg in 1918

An important point to note about the narrative is what of Rosa’s life and activism is left out. Thus the narrative presents Rosa when she is already involved in the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (Socjaldemokracja Królestwa Polskiego i Litwy – both under Czarist rule) and the SPD. We only see her early years in two brief flashbacks, one with her studying a flower with her mother, and the other teaching reading to her nanny. The cause of her lifelong limp [a hip ailment in childhood] is unexplained as is the point that the family was Jewish. The latter occasioned epithets directed at her by enemies just as was the case with Leon Trotsky. One important facet that is missing is that Rosa became active in revolutionary politics whilst she was till a school student. And her sojourn and studies in Zurich is only noted in the dialogue. Another important point that is missing is her marriage [of convenience] in 1897 in order to obtain German citizenship. And whilst the film identifies her relationships with Leo and Kostja, that with Paul Levi has to be surmised from his behaviour. The oddest omission for me was almost no reference to Lenin and the Bolshevik Party. The former is named once by Paul Levi. The latter do not get a single mention. Given both the common standpoints on imperialist wart and the impact of the Russian revolution on The Spartacist League, this is a serious omission. Rosa actually met Lenin in London in 1907 at a Russian Social Democrats Party Conference. Whilst this is mentioned in the dialogue, neither the title nor an explanation is provided.

This serious overlooking of people and influences of central importance to Rosa seems to be part of a deliberate playing down of the Marxism which was her political ;philosophy. In her struggles with the SPD there are references to her emphasis on the importance of organisation and of the General Strike; also of the need for the proletarians to control and push forward the Party leadership. But the content of this, set out noticeably in her 1900 article, ‘Reform or Revolution’ is missing. From 1913 the emphasis shifts to her opposition to the war. This is presented as capitalist but also militarist, so that the way that Rosa, along with Lenin, held to the prescriptions of Marx and Engels is not clearly set out. This seemed to me to result from a strategy of emphasizing Rosa Luxembourg as a feminist icon and pioneer. This is clearly problematic and the film has to recognise [in a comment to Clara Zetkin] that Rosa saw the struggle around gender as subordinate to that of class. But the emphasis in the plotting and characters continually emphasises Rosa’ work and friendship with other women, especially Clara and Sonja. Within the SPD her opponents are all men. Whilst Leon, Karl and Paul are all men who support her political standpoint; Leo is partially discredited by his affair and Karl by the film presenting his initiating of the Spartacist uprising as opportunist. The latter misrepresents both the events and Rosa’s standpoint. We do see French socialist, Jean Jaurès, making an anti-war speech but he is not actually identified. And, as noted, the most important revolutionary figure of the period, Lenin, is absent.

Pam Cook, in a very good review in the Monthly Film Bulletin, comments on the relationship between the political and personal;

“In effect, von Trotta has fictionalised Rosa Luxemburg, creating from real events of her life an idealised figure. This is particularly evident in the many sequences devoted to Rosa’s brilliantly evocative public speeches, which stand as spectacular ‘performances’ in their own right, almost like set-pieces in a musical bio-pic; and in the way Rosa’s actual words, painstakingly culled from her many letters and other writings, are abstracted from context and translated into intimate scenes with her cat, her woman friends, her family or her lovers.”

But Pam Cook also notes how the contradictions in this film and in its subject ‘strain’ the fictionalising process. This is apparent if we compare the film with a more conventional biopic of a revolutionary, Warren Beatty’s’ John Reed in ‘Reds’ (1981). The witnesses in that film are unidentified and their political viewpoint abstracted. In a scene where John Reed explains his politics to Louise Bryant he fails to finish a single complete sentence as several hours are transformed with ellipses into about five minutes, And, at the film’s end, this revolutionary internationalist is depicted as another homesick ‘American’. Rose Luxemburg avoids such failures. And the complexities of what is essentially an ‘art film’ treatment of the political bio-pic renders the narrative tapestry reflexive in a way that encourages viewers to notice those contradictions emerging in the fissures of the text. So the non-linear narrative produces a complex story telling. Whilst the political standpoints in the film are limited they are explicit, something that is fairly rare in commercial cinema.

One of the aspects that the film presents is the contradiction between the relative bourgeois life style of the leadership in the SPD and the proletarian situation of the mass of their members. In fact we only see proletarians in the prisons, as an audience in the public meetings where Rosa and others speechify, and at the end in the combat as the Spartacists battle the representatives of the German state. The film does not explicitly draw attention to the gulf that exists, but it is evident in the mise en scêne. The household of Bebel and Kautsky appear fairly affluent and they both have servants. The apartments that are used by Rosa and Leo and by Rosa and Kostja are also very comfortably furnished and ample in size. Rosa too has a maid and, later, a secretary. But the latter is called to participate in a political meeting by Rosa. This is an aspect of the film that demonstrates the importance of the contributions of the craft colleagues of von Trotta.

Music by Nicolas Economou

Cinematography by Franz Rath

Film Editing by Dagmar Hirtz, Galip Iyitanir

Set Decoration by Stepan Exner, Bernd Lepel

Costume Design by Monika Hasse

Make-up Department Bernd-Rüdiger Knoll

plus their colleagues working with them.

The film recreates the period with what seems to be great accuracy and detail. Sets range from the dark forbidding prisons to the comfortable households of the leaders to public halls where events are held and, at the film’s end, both the streets and the offices where the Spartacist organise and fight.

The cinematography is excellent. Varying from the noirish gloom of the prions to the bright, colourful public spectacles and, finally, the dark and dank resting place of Rosa’s corpse.

The visual detail in the film is impressive. There is one fine long shot of Rosa framed and dwarfed by the monumental Reichstag building as she leaves after the the SPD has betrayed the revolution and voted in the Reichstag for war credits. But the shots are not only dramatic but also ironic and even slightly humorous. The pre-credit sequence shows Rosa walking back and forth in a German prison with snow on the ground. She is first followed and then accompanied by a blackbird, who hops along in the snow.

The brutality and sadism of the reactionary state forces is clearly presented in the film. At the start we watch as women revolutionaries are distraught at the execution of male revolutionaries by the Polish military. This is followed by a mock execution of Rosa before an interrogation. At the film’s climax Liebknecht and Rosa are taken by the Freikorps, knocked unconscious and then shot. The reactionary hatred displayed to the revolutionaries by the right-wing militia and their supporters is clear.

In the closing sequences the film uses archive film to presents the revolutionary ferment that forced an end to the German war actions and then set the scene for a German revolution, which unfortunately failed. This is is well cut into the fictionalised representation and bring an elan to the drama. It is slightly unfortunate that this archive film has been reframed to fit the film ‘s own ratio, 1.66:1.

Rosa Luxemburg is a flawed and in some ways contradictory film. It shows the limitations of von Trotta political approach to film drama but also the way that the stories that she tells break free from some of the limitations of her approach. But I do not know of nay other filmic treatment of Luxemburg. She is both influential and frequently portrayed in literature, drama, painting, and music. It is a real credit that von Trotta has essayed this treatment. The screenings organised by the Independent Cinema Office included a short introduction by von Trotta herself. She explained that a fellow German film-maker and radical, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, originally planned a film treatment on Luxemburg and wrote a script. This was titled ‘Rosa L’ and was, apparently, found by his body after his death. One source suggests that he wanted Romy Schneider to play Rosa, another Jane Fonda; either suggesting a very different approach for that in von Trotta’s film. Von Trotta herself worked out her own script after a lengthy study of the sources on Luxemburg.

The British release [though limited] is opportune. 1919 sees the centenary of the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. A memorial demonstration was held in Berlin on the anniversary, January 14th. Luxemburg remains an iconic presence in revolutionary history. Her writings are still published and republished. Her ‘Reform or Revolution’ is major text; read it with the capitalist crisis of 208 in min d, and see its relevance. Both Lenin and Trotsky, both of whom disagreed with some of her work, were full of praise for her.

Posted in Film Directors, German film | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

An Elephant Sitting Still / Da xiang xi di er zuo , China 2018

Posted by keith1942 on January 17, 2019

This title runs for 230 minutes, a challenging length that we know some punters find too long. So it was reassuring when fifty people turned up at the Hyde Park Picture House last Sunday for what appears to be the only local screening. Several people had to take pit stops during the film but [I think] only two members of the audience gave up before the end.

To start with the title; several characters tell the story of an elephant in Manzhouli, [a northern city right near the border with Mongolia and Russia] which just sits and ignores the onlookers, even when they attempt to feed it, prod it or similar. As the narrative proceeds various characters plan to visit Manzhouli to see this elephant. And the elephant does close the story, though in an unexpected manner.

The actual action takes place in a Chinese city which does not seem to be identified. It could be Shenyang, but that seems a little too far from Manzhouli, being near to the border with with North Korea, The main action runs for less than a day, from about 6 a.m. to late in the day. A journey of indeterminate length ends the film. Where ever this is a bleak, exploitative and oppressive environment. There is not one really happy character in the film. All seem weighed down with the bleakness of the environment and their lives. The film opens in high rise flats where the power is not on in all flats, where toilets leak and the grim concrete stairways lead out to an area of rubbish and decay. There are several strands in this story but what mainly drives the development of the plot is the injury and death of a school student and the ramifications that follow this.

If the characters seem desolate they also seem alienated in the full sense of the word. For much of the film the main characters are more introspective than social. When they do carry out actions involving other people it seems misdirected, illegal or just likely to go wrong. The characters are mainly working class though some fall on the boundary between working class and petit bourgeois. And there are a number of who are genuine lumpen-proletarians. The writing of the characters and the performances are very good. They appear complex and their actions are sometimes surprising.

The film’s style mirrors the bleakness of the environment. The interiors are drab and low-key. And exteriors are fairly low-key as well; I do not remember any sunshine. The cinematography by Chao Fan was shot [I assume] with a Steadicam. There are full sequences that are presented in a single take. The narrative is elliptical. The editing by Bo Hu [the director] frequently cuts to leave a point unfinished. There are regular cuts between protagonists ins different settings, both partly commentating on the characters but also developing a certain mystery for the viewer in the unfolding of the plot. This is reinforced through the camerawork. Frequently the camera angle deliberately avoids showing an action or character. At one point, when a dog is mauled, this may be reticence but at other times it is clearly designed to make the viewer wait for information.

Bo Hu scripted, directed and edited the film so all of this treatment of narrative is his intent. In addition whilst the film appears to have a linear presentation the time frame seems ambiguous. There are the parallel cuts but others that seem to cross to different times. At one point a character’s mobile phone shows 1100; if that is the time the plot so far seems almost in real time. But the film does not run twelve or more hours. And at least one sequence in a café seems like a flashback as it is proceeded by two other character observing the café, and possibly the two characters within.

This is unconventional but workable treatment. But on occasions the ambiguity seems excessive. And there are a couple of sequences late in the film that seem unnecessarily prolonged. Part of a similar strategy? I did think a scriptwriting partner could have made the plot development sharper, But that would have only shortened the film by minutes. It does seem to me that the form and subject of the film do justify the running time of over three hours. And the way that we follow the characters was sufficient reason to forgo an intermission, a point some of us noticed.

The elephant of the title seems clearly intended as symbolic as well as actual. One review sees the elephant as representing an indifference to the world, a world the film presents as cruel and painful. I did wonder whether it had a particular significance in terms of Chinese culture, but no review I found commented on this. It might be meant as a reference to the famous parable of the ‘blind men and the elephant’. There is a Buddhist version of this moral tale. Its relevance to the story here is that not one of the characters appear to understand the nature and causes of their plight. [I was reminded of this parable by a character in Koreeda Hirokazu’s The Third Murder / Sandome no satsujin. 2017). The director, Bo Hu, was a fan of Béla Tarr. Another review described them both as practitioners of ‘miserabilist’ cinema. Not really accurate. But Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies / Werckmeister harmóniák (2000) features a whale that seems to represent the alienation of the village setting; perhaps an influence.

This will be the only directorial credit for Bo Hu as he committed suicide after the film was finished but before its release. Suicide suggests that the despairing alienation felt in the film was a personal expression. How far this has effected the film we have is unclear. It has been reported that the producers tried to shorten the finished film by well over an hour. Fortunately it remains in what appears to be a mostly complete form.

The film was shot on 4K Redcode RAW and Dolby Digital 5.1. The version exhibiting here in Britain does not wholly reflect that. Partly this mat be that it is distributed on a 2K DCP, in standard widescreen and colour with English sub-titles. Some of the sound seems uneven and some of the interiors lack the contrast you would expect from 4K or from 35mm film. It remains a fascinating and powerful drama. It certainly reflects on the exploitation now experienced in China where capitalism has been restored. Compare the alienated characters with those in one of the dramas from the dawn of the Socialist Revolution in 1949 – Crows and Sparrows / Wuya yu maque, [both films are in Mandarin]. The latter film has a real sense of community and people struggling together. Still, An Elephant Sitting Still is a worthwhile film to see and repays the time spent sitting in an auditorium.

Posted in Chinese film | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Films by Margarethe von Trotta

Posted by keith1942 on January 10, 2019

This is a package of films from the important German film-maker distributed round Britain at the start of 2019 by the Independent Cinema Office with support from the Goethe-Institut London and German Screen Studies Network. This is a welcome initiative. Some of the titles, such as Rosa Luxembourg (1986), are rarely seen. Some, like The German Sisters / Die bleierne Zeit (1981), have not been available theatrically for years. The films are circulated in new digital versions; but German digital transfer are usually very good. What I find less happy is the title of the programme, ‘the personal is political’. This seems to me back-to-front; von Trotta’s films actually suggest that the ‘political is personal’.

 

 

In The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum / Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum (1975, co-directed with Volker Schlöndorf) the titular character becomes a victim of tabloid journalism. Whilst this results from a personal relationship what fuels her persecution by the media and the authorities is her supposed political connections. The focus of the film these reactionary aspects of West German culture.

 

 

One can see this in von Trotta’s first solo feature, The Second Awakening of Christa Klages / Das zweite Erwachen der Christa Klages (1978). The protagonist Christa is a young mother involved in running a free nursery. It is the problems of the nursery that lead to her actions, some of these being criminal. The film certainly addresses motherhood but this is in a social context. At one point in the film Christa and her friend hide out in Portugal where they work in an agricultural commune. It is this type of political and social context that dominates the film.

 

 

The political and social context is just as prominent tin her next film, one of my favourites, The German Sisters. Dramatizing in fictional form aspects of the famous/infamous Red Army Faction. One sister, Juliane, is a feminist journalist; the other, Marianne, is a member of a revolutionary faction committed to armed action. Their relationship, the travails and disputes that arise, all follow from their political rather than their personal positions. The film indeed dramatizes female relationships and [again] motherhood but this is within the political discourses in which the two sisters reside.

 

 

The fourth film is Rosa Luxemburg. This is a biopic of one of the outstanding revolutionaries of the early twentieth century. Luxemburg is a feminist icon and she fought against the patriarchal tendencies within the revolutionary movement. But her driving force was the class struggle and proletarian revolution. The way that she utilised bourgeois marriage is indicative of a stance that prioritises the political over the personal. The characterisation of Luxemburg emphasises the revolutionary standpoint, that the political informs the personal rather than the other way round. Luxembourg prioritised the class struggle over the struggle round gender. Whereas ‘the personal is political’ often tends to prioritise gender over class.

I am looking forward to revisiting these fine films by von Trotta. Apart from her undoubted cinematic and narrative skills this film director is unusual [in contrast to the majority of male and female film directors] in skilfully integrating fine film-making and story telling with the central political issues of our time.

Rosa Luxemburg is screening at the Hyde Park Picture House on January 15th.

Posted in Film Directors, German film, Political film | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Sight & Sound ‘Top Films of 2018’

Posted by keith1942 on December 31, 2018

As last year this list, compiled from 164 responses, appeared early in December, so that it does not cover the whole year. This is partly the odd practice of the BFI to issue the magazine a month ahead of its calendar date. A new facet this year is that it is a double issue, January and February 2019. At 144 pages this is not actually equal to two separate issues.

Apart from these oddities the whole concept of listing the ‘best’ or ‘top’ films for any period is slightly problematic. I assume that even the most indefatigable critic or punter will only have seen a proportion of the new films in any period. In fact this year’s list includes five titles that also appeared in 2017. That make me wonder to what degree there is a common pool of films from which the respondents choose; unlikely which undermines the idea of ‘top’.

Of the 164 respondents only 40 lists of choices appeared in the magazine. Apparently the rest are on the Web pages. I searched twice with no success and an email enquiry to S&S went without response. The top title received 38 votes, the rest 30 or less. That means that no film on the listing garnered even a quarter of the ‘votes’. The more one examines this the more dubious the underlying concept becomes.

Below are my comments on the ones that I have seen plus one.

1. Roma, USA/Netflix.. 38 votes, presumably like me, many respondents have not seen this title.

2. Phantom Thread, USA / Britain. This was well made and well acted but suffered from the usual pre-occupations of the director. He seems to be keen on cults and manages to make 1950s British fashion industry cult-like.

3. Burning / Beoning, South Korea. This I thought seriously good film. I was really interested in the characters. The narrative was somewhat unconventional but I was always involved in the story. And the film made great use of style.

4. Cold War / Zimna wojna, Poland / Britain / France. I have think the best film yet from a talented director. The film owes much to the beautiful black and white cinematography. The two leads are terrific.

5. First Reformed, USA / Britain / Australia. This was a very good film, though I thought the over-the-top ending rather blew it. The cast are good. The director’s minimalist approach in narrative and style is very effective.

6, Leave No Trace, USA / Canada. A fine film with fine performances and a distinctive situation.

7. The Favourite, Eire / Britain / USA. This film irritated me. Too many self-conscious techniques and too heavy-handed satire. It reminded me of The Draughtman’s Contract (1982), which was equally self-conscious.

You Were Never Really Here, Britain, France, USA.. This film, bizarrely, was included among ‘five British films to see’, even though it is set in New York, with a predominately US cast and locations. Apparently the leads first name is pronounced ‘wack hin’; this would seem to aptly sum up the title.

9. Happy as Lazzarro / Lazzaro felice, Italy/ Switzerland / France / Germany. This is one of many titles where I wondered how it came behind others, especially those at 7. This is an example of Italian ‘magic realism’; more common than often allowed. The combination of social realism and a sort of fantasy is a great combination. The narrative, cast and style of the film are all excellent.

Zama, Argentina / Brazil / Spain / Dominican Republic / France / Netherlands / Mexico / Switzerland / USA / Portugal / Lebanon. The director spent nine years setting up this production; too long but time well spent. Great filmic adaptation with a really interesting narration and fine stylistic contributions.

11. The Image Book / Le livre d’image Switzerland / France. Brilliant, challenging and a stimulating commentary on modern cinema and digital formats.

12. If Beale Street Could Talk, USA. A fine adaptation of a great novel by James Baldwin. An impressive cast, a moving story and a fine sense of period.

13. BlacKkKlansman, USA. Very funny but the social commentary seems slightly laboured.

14 [three titles] Shoplifters / Manbiki kazoku, Japan.. I would have put this right at the top. Were any members of the Jury who voted it the Palme d’Or among the voters? It is a beautifully crafted film with an involving story and a rather subversive treatment of representations of the ‘family’.

17. Sorry to Bother You, USA. This seems to me overrated. There are some splendid sequences but overall it needs a script doctor. The reviews claimed the title was anti-capitalist! No more so than Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story (2009). Filmmakers and reviewers alike need to read ‘The Communist Manifesto’, celebrated in The Young Karl Marx (2017).

18. Faces Places / Visages villages, France. This must be one of the best documentaries of the year.

….  The Rider, USA. A fine feature with an interesting main human character and animal characters including horses, dogs and goats.

….  Western, Germany / Bulgaria / Austria. A fine drama which tackled an unconventional setting.

21. [seven titles including] Isle of Dogs, Germany / USA. Brilliant animation and comedy. I love canine movies and this was one of the best.

28. [eight titles including] Lady Bird, USA. This was well done and an interesting plot but I found it unconvincing. It seemed to be stuck in a time warp from the 1950s; Apparently the film-makers wanted to give that impression.

….  Loveless / Nelyubov, Russia / France / Germany / Belgium / USA. Bleak and exceptionally well achieved. The characters were convincing as was the story which was untypical, even for family trauma.

….  A Star is Born, USA. I was not struck with this, it seemed to me the weakest of the four versions of the story. This despite recycling most of them; such as the ‘Grannies’ instead of the ‘Oscars’. It did have a rather nice dog, but only to follow characters around.

….  Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, Britain / USA. Very good with a great lead performance. The final resolution though seemed a little optimistic.

….  The Wild Pear Tree / Ahlat Agaci, Turkey / Republic of Macedonia / France / Germany / Bosnia and Herzegovina / Bulgaria / Sweden. How is this film this low in the list? I have seen it twice and I was even more impressed the second time round.

36.  Apostasy, Britain. Another film I thought was over-rated. There is clearly a strong critical sense in the film but the plot needs attention. If the daughter is broke how come she drives round in a nearly-new car. And the image looked ‘muddy’ most of the time.

….  The Miseducation of Cameron Post, USA. This had a strong story, looked good and an excellent cast. But no review that I read picked up on the borrowings from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (USA 1975).

….  Widows, Britain / USA. I do not think this should actually be in the list when better films are missing. The cast are good. The plot, though, has continuity errors or omissions. I suspect the original television version was better.

Missing Titles: [none of these was even listed by a respondent, at least those I could check].

Jupitor’s Moon / Jupiter holdja, Hungary / Germany / France. Shades of ‘magical realism’ in this powerful drama about an illegal migrant battling the European ‘walls’.

Peterloo, Britain. This is not even in the ‘five British films to see’! There are flaws which I suspect are due to the film being bought forward to 2018 instead of accompanying the bi-centenary of the event. The ending is rushed. But the context of the event and the participants is excellent. The critical reaction possibly explains [as Paul Rotha once pointed out] why it has taken so long for a film of the Manchester massacre to appear.

The Rape of Recy Taylor, USA. Not even in ‘five documentaries to see’. An important subject and a impressive treatment. Were all the critics watching something else?

The Young Karl Marx / La jeune Karl Marx, France / Belgium / Germany. Apart from issues of aesthetics respondents to the poll should watch this film because, at least in quite a few cases, they do not understand the mode of production in  which film industries operate.

Missing Title: [which at least received one ‘vote’.

Sweet Country, Australia. I saw this early in the year, so maybe respondents had forgotten the title. I remembered it vividly, including the outback town screening.

Among the important matters which are omitted are where respondents saw these films and on what format. One of the ‘five to see’ lists was for silent; but most of the titles were ones where they seem to have screened in a digital format rather than on 35mm, the latter is much closer to the original nitrate formats. And in Britain it is hard to see titles in a 4K standard; I manged only five this year despite going every week to see titles.

And the question regarding formats goes further. Did all the voters watch the titles they recommended in a theatrical setting and on a theatrical format or did they watch them via some video format or via downloading or streaming. It seems likely that Academy members often vote after watching a free-bee video! This is not the same thing at all.

Posted in Polls and listings | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

On film boycotts.

Posted by keith1942 on December 7, 2018

When the Leeds International Film Festival 2018 Brochure appeared in early October it included in the ‘Time frames’ programme The Knife in the Water / Nóz w wodzie (Poland 1962). There were to be two screenings from a 35mm print. The film was scripted by Roman Polanski with

Jakub Goldberg and Jerzy Skolimowski. It was the first feature film directed by Roman Polanski after he attended the National Film School in Łódź. The film over the years has garnered a reputation for quality, along with other films directed in later years by Polanski.

When I tried to book a ticket for a screening of the film I was advised that it had been cancelled. And when the Catalogue appeared on the opening night of the Festival this title was missing. Why it was missing was a mystery as there was no explanation from the Festival office. However, a little later I discovered a comment on the screening on a twitter account, one that had been copied in the USA. A social media site, ‘realwomenrealstories’ contained this tweet,

“BREAKING: Leeds International Film Festival (@leedsfilmfest) cancels screening of “Knife In The Water” by convicted child rapist Roman Polanski. This is an urgent time to say NO to #sexualabuse against women. Movie is removed: https://www.leedsfilmcity.com/film-year-round/knife-in-the-water/ … #timesup #metoo #speakup”

The pages contained a number of other tweets concerning Polanski’s sexual misconduct as well as reports of other allegations of sexual violence in media reports and especially by well-known public figures. The site is rendering a public service by exposing such crimes and offers a place for women to report this. However, as with most social media, you have to take the reports and claims on trust. In Polanski’s case it is a matter of legal record that he was found guilty of an offence in the USA. This was of ‘unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor’ for which Polanski was sentenced to a term of imprisonment. He fled the USA to avoid the jail term and has never served the sentence. In the 1990s he did conclude a settlement with the victim which involved a payment and confidentiality clauses. There have been two other accusations of sexual molestation but neither has been legally investigated or tried.

The text confirmed what had been suggested to me by a festival goer, that the film had been withdrawn because of complaints about screening a Polanski film because of his record of sexual molestation. I did ask the Festival organisers regarding withdrawal. They confirmed that the title had been dropped from the programme because of various issues; one being complaints regarding a film by Roman Polanski. They declined to discuss this further and also declined my offer of a comment which I could include in this posting.

The complainants seem to be agitating for a boycott of Polanski’s films.

“A boycott is an act of voluntary and intentional abstention from using, buying, or dealing with a person, organization, or country as an expression of protest, usually for moral, social, political, or environmental reasons. The purpose of a boycott is to inflict some economic loss on the target, or to indicate a moral outrage, to try to compel the target to alter an objectionable behaviour.”

The word derives from the actions of the Irish Land League in 1880 against the agent, one Captain Boycott, of an Anglo-Irish Peer, representative of the British occupation of Eire. Thus its original use was as part of a National Liberation struggle against a colonial power. A current example of parallel action would be the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction Movement against the Zionist occupation of Palestinian lands. However, it has also been used as part of campaigns against individuals deemed to inflicted unacceptable behaviour on people.

I have a number of reservations about this matter. Foremost is the dropping of a title without any public information nor an opportunity for film and festival goers to comment. The Festival is publicly funded – by the Council and the British Film Institute – as well as by other agencies. So public money is involved. I am not aware of a policy by national or local government of banning works by artists who have committed sexual molestations. Clearly though in the last couple of years it has become a much discussed issue with groups and individuals advocating such bans. However, there is not uniformity of opinion on this so I think public events should be prepared to have a debate when such actions are proposed. The organisers did make the point that the programming of the Festival involves choices, with some films being selected and some not. However, I would like such criteria to be matter of public knowledge and discussion. This is especially important when not just critical judgements are being made but when it is an issue of censorship; i.e. certain works are not permitted. Beyond this censorship is a thorny issue. I think there should be limited grounds which allow for this. And in the case of a film title of a particular film-maker I feel that there are a number of aspects that need to be put.

The proposal to not screen films directed or written and directed by Roman Polanski conflate his personal life with that of his profession. There are plenty of examples of artists whose personal lives and behaviour do not match up to the contemporary moral code but not many are banned. The contemporary is important because I think it is a problematic approach to judge art works, not by the standards of when they were produced, but by the later standards of some critical voice.

In fact Polanski’s films have a rather different treatment from sexual matters to his ways in personal life. Whilst sexuality is common an prominent theme in his films it is also one that is treated critically in terms of the mores operating when the film was produced. A prime example is a film produced in the USA in 1974, Chinatown. The main women character, Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) is certainly the victim of misogynistic treatment. To what degree one thinks that the protagonist J. J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is a misogynist is dependant on interpretation but the film quite clearly treats the action perpetrated on her critically; I find her the most sympathetic character in the film. Similar points can be made regarding Polanski’s two earlier British films, Repulsion (1965) and Cul-De-sac (1966). And Knife in the Water treats the sole female character Krystyna (Jolanta Umecka) better than the two men. It is their masculine pretensions that the film exposes.

Knife in the Water raises another important aspect. One of the appeals of the film is the acting and the characterisations. The three actors do a fine job of the people set out in the screenplay which is the combined work of three people, Jakub Goldberg (scenario), Roman Polanski (scenario), Jerzy Skolimowski (dialogue). And part of the pleasure of the film are the cinematography by Jerzy Lipman and the score by Krzysztof T. Komeda. The film as a whole is extremely well done and the credits [as usual with films] include a long list of skilled crafts people. All of these members of the production are barred by banning this film though I am not aware that any other of them have been accused of sexual misdemeanours.

And the film was produced by Zespol Filmowy “Kamera”, a Polish State Production Company which closed in 1968. In Britain the British Film Institute holds the distribution rights to the film.

I do not know who holds the rights for the film now; it would seem unlikely that is Polanski. So the economic impact of the proposed boycott falls not on the subject but on another agency and, of course, the BFI. The latter presumably have paid for the distribution rights. Apart from hitting the limited budgets of the BFI this is likely to discourage then Institute from trying to distribute other films, possibly not just titles by Polanski.

It strikes me that the intent and the effect of such restrictions is confused and for sure produces unintended consequences. Britain is not a hospitable environ for foreign language films and it is becoming more and more difficult to see such titles in theatrical settings; even more so to see them in their original format. I think people and groups that would like to prohibit films by Polanski [and other individuals who have committed offences] would do well to give serious consideration to what they propose and for what they organise agitation.

Posted in Festivals, Film censorship | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Misogyny or Sexism

Posted by keith1942 on November 16, 2018

Jeannie and Peter in ‘The Day the Earth Caught Fire’

In my experience of reading material on film I have found that ‘misogyny’ is a term increasingly used whereas the term ‘sexism’ seems to be used less frequently. In some cases I think the former term is less appropriate than the latter term.

‘Misogyny’; some definitions use ‘hatred and contempt for women’, some use ‘dislike and hatred for women’. However, the word ‘misos’ [from the Greek] which combines in the term is given as ‘hatred’. ‘Sexism’; an online definition gives ‘prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination, typically against women, on the basis of sex.’ There is a clear distinction here and I tend to restrict misogyny to cases where there is a definite ‘hatred and/or contempt’, which infers both an identifiable standpoint and action. ‘Prejudice, stereotyping or discrimination’ suggest unquestioned values that people may or may not critically examine.

I was motivated to consider this recently by an online review of the British film The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961). I had seen this film again in the last few years in a 35mm anamorphic print and including the yellow tinting at the opening and closing of the film that appeared in it original release. The review on ‘The Case for Global Film’ included the following;

“His [the protagonist Peter Stenning played by Edward Judd] developing relationship with Janet Munro’s Jeannie is almost equally important. Scriptwriters Val Guest (who directed) and Wolf Marcinkiewicz parallel Stenning’s alcoholic cynicism with the existential threat of the dying planet. By doing this the abstract idea of extinction can be more readily understood: it matters little whether he loves life or not if we are all doomed. Munro’s character, though politically naive, is wise to Stenning’s initially predatory motives and she shows herself entirely able to look after herself. As I.Q. Hunter says, in an excellent piece in British Science Fiction(which he also edited), her character is far less misogynist than many in the New Wave films of the time.”

I agreed with the characterisation of Jeannie but I questioned the claim of misogyny in New Wave Films and I assumed the reference was to the British variant. In a follow-up to my comment the reviewer responded:

“The broad reference to misogynistic ‘new wave’ films (yes, the British variety but I think the charge sticks to the French one too) isn’t simply about their objectification (which is itself misogynistic) but their role in the narratives (obviously not all of them). This reflected the mores of the time and it was refreshing to see Janet Munro’s character as more than a passive recipient of male attentions.”

‘Objectification’ has a number of definitions but that on Wikipedia is helpful in this case:

”Sexual objectification is the act of treating a person as a mere object of sexual desire. Objectification more broadly means treating a person as a commodity or an object without regard to their personality or dignity. Objectification is most commonly examined at the level of a society, but can also refer to the behaviour of individuals and is a type of dehumanization.”

It should be noted that treats the usage as a set of values. Treating someone as a commodity reflects the mode of production and is some way from activities including hatred and contempt. And it is difficult to consider films as ‘individual behaviour’ except in terms of the characters within this narrative; and only some films endorse some characters.

Then I went to the quoted volume, ‘British Science Fiction Cinema’, (Routledge 1999) and edited by I. Q. Hunter. The article quoted was on ‘The Day the Earth Caught Fire’ by I. Q. Hunter an included,

‘She [Jeannie] is stronger and more sexually aware than the hapless, misogynistically portrayed women in the New Wave films, of whom a surprising number fall into one of two grim stereotypes: older women who need sex and younger women who need abortions.”

I did add a further comment and asked for specific examples but none have been offered yet. I do wonder if Hunter has actually watched the New Wave films, British or French.

To address the British New Wave films first; I have appended a listing of titles at the end.

Alice and Joe in ‘Room at the Top’

The ‘older women who need sex’. This might refer to Room at the Top, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and This Sporting Life. In Room at the Top the older woman is Alice Aisgill played by Simone Signoret. Alice certainly has a sexual relationship with the younger Joe Lampton (Lawrence Harvey) but the relationship is about much more than sex. The key sequence here is when Alice and Joe spends a few days together at a country cottage. This depicts a serious and loving relationship. One that leads Alice to effective commit suicide when Joe marries the younger Susan Brown (Heather Sears). A death that leaves Joe distraught with both loss and guilt.

In Saturday Night and Sunday Morning Rachel Roberts plays the married Brenda who is having an affair with the protagonist Arthur Seaton (Albert Finney). Their relationship is primarily sexual but it is also notably friendly. Brenda does not just need sex, she wants a relationship with fun; this is more than the merely ‘need’ used by Hunter.

Rachel Roberts also plays the widowed Margaret Hammond who is wooed by her lodger Frank Machin (Richard Harris) in This Sporting Life. In this case it is because of her repressions that Margaret cannot consummate a sexual relationship with Frank and this is important in the tragic end of the relationship. There is Helen (Dora Bryan) in A Taste of Honey, the mother of protagonist Jo Rita Tushingham). But Helen wants sex and a good time, and she does not need younger men to enjoy this.

Hunters comments in this case seems simplistic and based on the plots of the films rather than the characters in the story. Simone Signoret and Rachael Roberts give fine performances in all three of their films and these are portraits that are complex not simplistic. It occurs to me that Hunter may have been thinking of a different film in this case; Alfie (1966) where the titular protagonist (played by Michael Caine] has a relationship with the older Ruby (Shelley Winters). Ruby does indeed dump Alfie for a younger and presumably more sexually active man. But Alfie is not a New Wave film, it is a ‘swinging London’ film.

Alfie and Ruby in ‘Alfie’

When we turn to ‘younger women who need an abortion’ this might include A Taste of Honey with the pregnant Jo. If Hunter thinks that this film includes misogyny I am [almost] lost for words. Jo is one of the finest portrayals of a young women in 1960s cinema And while her mother Helen is less sympathetic her portrayal is not misogynistic. She is feckless but she also has a vibrant feel for life. Moreover Jo decides to have her child. And she is assisted by Geoffrey (Murray Melvin), a breakthrough in the portrayal of homosexual characters.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning could feature again. Here it is Brenda, the older married woman, who needs the abortion. But this is not treated in a misogynistic manner. Brenda’s attempted abortion in the film is a harrowing experience and it is also a breakthrough in British cinema in the representation of this. A Kind of Loving does seem closer to his description. But when Ingrid Rothwell (June Ritchie) is made pregnant by ‘Vic’ Brown (Alan Bates) they actually marry and the film’s focus is the strains within the marriage because it was occasioned by an unintended pregnancy.

There is The L-shaped Room (1962) adapted from the novel by Lynne Reid Banks. But it is the male doctor who suggests an abortion and Jane (Leslie Caron, in an award winning performance) decides the have the child. It is her preparation for the birth and the relationships that she has that occupy the film.

Perhaps we have the same error repeated. In Alfie Gilda (Julia Foster) is made pregnant and Alfie tries to arrange an abortion. But Gilda finally has the child and marries an older but more sympathetic man. And Alfie is left ruefully wondering where his life is leading.

So if the comments regarding the British New Wave seem misjudged, what about the Nouvelle Vague. These were less specific, just a generalised comment by the reviewer. But having seen the French films on a number of occasions I am equally mystified.

Michel with Patricia in ‘A bout de souffle’

In À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960) Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) might seem a misogynist but the film does not endorse his behaviour, as indeed neither does Patricia (Jena Seberg). Les Bonnes Femmes (1960) has at least one male character who is a misogynist but the centre of the film are the four women, interesting and attractive characters. Lola (1960) has Anouk Aimée in the title role of a celebration of a woman pursued by three men who makes her own choice, even if the audience may not agree on its suitability. Jules et Jim (1962) may focus on two male friends, Jim (Henri Serre) Jules (Oskar Werner), but its real subject, treated as capricious but full of fascination, is Catherine (Jeanne Moreau). And there is Cléo de 5 à 7 (Cleo from 5 to 7, 1962), which I have just seen again at the Leeds International Film festival. This is more ‘Left Bank’ that Nouvelle Vague but it is a wonderful study of a young women treated as subject in her own right. One could continue with films by Jacques Rivette or Eric Rohmer.

I just have to object to the use of misogyny with regard to any of these films. Such films should in the first instance be judge in the world and culture for which they were made. And both the British New Wave and the French Nouvelle Vague are trailblazers in so many ways, including in the representation of women in mainstream and commercial cinema. Even in the world of art cinema they are notable. If the judgement is from later standpoint then the contemporary culture needs to be accounted for as well.

The use in the earlier comment of ‘objectification ‘ would seem to be of this type. But, as the Wikipedia definition makes clear, the term represents a separate discourse from that implied by misogyny. Films are distinct from the individuals who made them, even the more influential and powerful individuals involved. Objectification falls into the area of [another much abused word] ‘ideology’. But referring back to Marx, who uses the term with both intelligence and precision, then we have not just dominant ideas but ideas that represent the surface rather than the underlying social relations. But hatred and contempt besides being personal are separate from the underlying values, though they may be influenced by these.

The sort of comment in the ITP review and in Hunter’s article do a grave disservice to the study of film. The notable films of the 1960s deserve to be critically examined but with intelligence and care.

BFI and Wikipedia listings for British New Wave;

Room at the Top (1959; directed by Jack Clayton)

Look Back in Anger (1959; directed by Tony Richardson)

The Entertainer (1960; directed by Tony Richardson) [only in Wikipedia

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960; directed by Karel Reisz)

A Taste of Honey (1961; directed by Tony Richardson)

A Kind of Loving (1962; directed by John Schlesinger)

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962; directed by Tony Richardson)

The L-Shaped Room (1962; directed by Bryan Forbes)

This Sporting Life (1963; directed by Lindsay Anderson)

Billy Liar (1963; directed by John Schlesinger)

I would add,

Morgan, A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966; directed by Karel Reisz).

 

NB. There is a section in ‘Behind the Scenes at the BBFC’, edited by Edward Lamberti (BFI 2012) dealing with the period; ‘The Trevelyan Years …’ and dealing with ‘Women and the New Wave’. I think the discussion of how these films were treated supports my argument regarding these titles.

Posted in British films, French film | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

A Wasted Sunday / Squandered Sunday / Zabitá needle, Czechoslovakia 1969

Posted by keith1942 on November 5, 2018

This film was screened in the ‘Time Frames’ programme at the Leeds International Film Festival. I had never come across this title before and it seems little-known. The film, a first feature, was banned on completion. The production had halted for a time because of the arrival of Soviet tanks and it was completed after the Soviet-led forces forced a change in government. The film was only released in Czechoslovakia in 1990 and here in Britain in 2016. The director, Drahomíra Vihanová, had previously made one short film, Fugue on the Black Keys (Fuga na cerných klávesách, 1965), in black and white and running 34 minutes. After this feature she was banned and only able to make short documentaries in the late 1970s and 1980s. Her next feature was not produced until 1994, Pevost. She died in 2017 so this screening was posthumous.

The film has a commentary in voice-over and frequent on-screen titles which offer what at times appear to be quotations, some of which have a religious or moral tone. The protagonist, around whom the whole film revolves, is Arnošt (Ernest – Ivan Palúch), a commander of an army unit stationed in a small town and backwater. We follow Arnošt through the Sunday, from his awakening to the end of the same evening. We see him in his mess of a room and with a friend and fellow army companion Ivan (Petr Skarke). We see him at the local army barracks; pretty desolate. And we see him drinking and socialising in a bar, though he is nearly broke. At times we watch what are flashbacks motivated by Arnošt; but there are also fantasies or dream sequences motivated also by him.

Much of the flashbacks and dream sequences concern women and sexual activity. Arnošt seems to be fairly manipulative in his dealings with men . But his dealings with woman are of a different order. I think the term misogynist is often an overused term: some male prejudices are not of the same order as real hatred or contempt for women. But Arnošt struck me as a fully-paid-up misogynist. There is one regular female companion, I think this is Irene (Irena Boleslavská), who he treats with real contempt whilst exploiting her affection for him.

Panelstory aneb jak se rodí sídliště

There is also a separate sequence that opens the film. This is a funeral in a local cemetery, and it seems to have been Arnošt’s mother. I am not clear how much this might be an explanation for some of his behaviour and actions in the subsequent film. I do not think we ever have a further reference to the loss.

The film has English sub-titles but quite a few of the Czech on-screen titles filled the frame and it was difficult to read the sub-titles, so I am unsure how much I missed and what was its import.

I have to say that I did not fully engage with this film. Arnošt is the most objectionable protagonist I have seen for some time; [Marcello in Dogman is a victim by comparison). And stylistically I found the film somewhat of a melee. A friend remarked that he thought that the director

‘had scoured the history of cinema for techniques’.

There are expressionist scenes, partly surrealist scenes, but also many that seem mainly realist. And at time we get editing that is almost Soviet montage. I did find that I found the film more interesting towards the end, perhaps I found the disparate strands coming together. The ending is worthy of a noir film. We have earlier seen Arnošt playing with his revolver and several scenes on shooting range. Almost predictably he shoots himself, off-screen. But we then see Ivan in the role of local commander.

The Festival Catalogue commented on the film :

‘Squandered Sunday is an indelible portrait of a man overcome by the banality of his existence, and a powerful political allegory for Czechoslovakia after the Prague Spring was crushed.”

I though any political allegory was weak, but this was 1979 so overt parallels or symbolism were probably not possible. But since the film was in production at the time of the Soviet-led invasion it would seem that the film is more likely a comment on the situation in remoter places and the persistence of a social order that the reforms led by Alexander Dubček were meant to change. It also struck me that the cemetery scene, which seems distinct from the rest of the film, might have been added later in the production as a veiled reference to the suppression of the reform movement. This would explain an unusual facet; both Arnošt and Ivan are credited [on IMDB] as having separate actors acting and voicing the characters. A sequence added later would be a possible reason for this.

I have not seen Drahomíra Vihanová’s other films. However, her early short, Fugue on the Black Keys, focusses on a black African musician performing in Prague. He encounters racism but the most affecting moment is when he hears that his family back home has perished, [the cause is not given]. To the extent that I was able to find out the content of her other films it seems they frequently deal with relationships, isolation or exclusion and alienation. That would certainly tie them to this title, A Wasted Sunday. Perhaps her films bring together her own particular concerns with the larger concerns in a Czechoslovakia oppressed by occupation.

The titles on the film translated the Czech as A Wasted Sunday but it seems that Squandered Sunday is the circulated title. We were fortunate in viewing a good 35mm print. Shot in black and white in academy ratio it has excellent cinematography by Zdenek Prchlík and Petr Volf. The editing was by Miroslav Hájek who presumably was fully occupied with the cutting of the film also well done. The music by Jirí Sust is often discordant, which fits the narrative. The screenplay was by Jirí Krenek from his own novel and involved the director in the writing. The film was screened at the 2017 Cinema Ritrovato which presumably gave it exposure. It is good that the Leeds Festival also gave an opportunity to see this little-known film.

Posted in Avant-garde film, East European Film, Festivals | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Dogman, Italy 2018

Posted by keith1942 on October 31, 2018

This is the new feature by Matteo Garrone, the director of the 2008 Gomorrah, a powerful drama about members of a crime organisation in the Naples area. This is also in a way a crime film but with a rather different type of plot; it shares the downbeat tone and resolution of the earlier film.

This new title is set in an outer suburb of Rome close to the River Tiber. This is a small run-down enclave with a plain square, a few shops and businesses and a number of high-rise flats. The central character is Marcello (Marcello Fonte), the ‘dogman’ of the title. He runs a small and basic dog parlour offering both grooming and shampoos with some boarding accommodation. The latter is very basic as is the exercising of the dogs which we see at one point.

The canine performers are only part of the setting for the film, though we see quite a lot of them. Marcello’s own dog is Jack, a cross-breed. He has slightly more to do then the varied breeds seen in the parlour but he is not a fully developed character.

This treatment is reserved for Simoncino (Edoardo Pesce), a great hulk of man, an ex-boxer who appears to have suffered mentally from his occupation. Simon terrorizes the local community. It seems he is repeatedly jailed for minor offences but only for short periods; then returning to carry on his antisocial behaviour. Marcello is part of a business/friendship circle at a local bar where the men discuss ‘dealing’ with Simon, but go no further.

Because Marcello, as a side-line, provides Simon with cocaine he has more dealings with him. And it is this relationship that leads to the more and more problematic situation. Whilst Marcello vainly tries to avoid increasing involvement in crime he also cares for his daughter who lives with his separated wife. I assumed that the holidays they take together, underwater explorations , are fuelled by his drug dealing.

Marcello’s path is downhill all through the film. He struck me as the ‘biggest loser’ I have ever seen in a film, venturing into actions that screamed disaster, if not to him then certainly to the audience. The climax of the film comes when he has to confront his unequal relationship with Simon. This includes what can be seen as a ‘compulsory scene [one that the audience becomes increasingly impatient for].

The film is as bleak as the earlier Gomorrah. The flat landscape in and around the suburb, and also among the marshes where Marcello makes a brief visit, offers uninviting vistas. The underwater world visited by Marcello and his daughter provides a vivid and more exotic contrast. The cinematography by Nicolaj Brüel, using a digital format, uses the former to great effect, There is a noir feel to the evening sequences whilst daytime is flattened out to a grim but bright palette,

Michele Braga sparse music adds to this feeling of grim reality.

The screenplay is the work of a trio, Ugo Chiti, Matteo Garrone, Massimo Gaudioso, who also wrote Gomorrah; and there are four other writers credited as collaborators. The way the story intertwines the characters and the places is excellent and the narrative works up to a powerful climax. This focuses totally on Marcello and Simoncino, leaving us little wiser about the daughter or the other in habitants, who remain predominately ciphers in the story.

The film offers a strong realist feel to place and characters though the plot tends more towards melodrama. This is a fine piece of film-making though it is as downbeat as a film can get. It has the tragic feel of some of the classics of earlier decades, including those from neorealism.

The film is in colour and in a ratio of 2.35:1 circulating in a 2K DCP. The print in Britain has English sub-titles. I saw the film at the Tyneside Cinema, my first visit. This is  a multi-screen independent. It is impressive how they have fitted all the facilities into the one building. And the venue offers a varied and interesting programme.

Posted in Italian Film | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

1945, Hungary 2017

Posted by keith1942 on October 21, 2018

This is a fine Hungarian film that, so far, does not appear to have enjoyed a proper British release. I was fortunate to catch it at the Sheffield Showroom. It was screened at the Berlin Film Festival, where it was popular with audiences, and it has screened at the Edinburgh Film Festival. Now Filmhouse, the Edinburgh based exhibitor have made it available. So far there is not a Sight & Sound review.

The film is set on August 12th 1945, commencing precisely at 1100 as a train arrives at the railway station in an unnamed village. The location seems to be south of Budapest not far from the Danube river.

The train deposits two figures dressed in black and accompanied by two large boxes. They have already arranged for a carter to collect the boxes and taken them into the village. Among the onlookers is a jeep containing three Soviet soldiers, signs of the Soviet occupation of Hungary following the defeat of the Nazi occupation. Whilst they are tangential to the plot the jeep constantly re-appears, reminding viewers of the state of Hungary at this moment in time.

The station master immediately identifies the two stranger as Jews. He races in panic to report this to the Town Clerk, Szentes István (Péter Rudolf). As the opening suggests this visit will bring up memories amongst the townspeople, and they turn out to be memories of apprehension, fear and guilt.

In the course of a couple of hours we watch as the two visitors follow the cart at a slow pace to the small town and to a disused Synagogue. Whilst this happens the town’s people are preparing to celebrate the wedding of Istvan’s son Szentes Árpád (Bence Tasnádi). But his bride-to-be finds that her former lover has returned after apparently serving in the Soviet forces; he is clearly characterised as leftist whilst István is a grasping entrepreneur. Árpád has a suppressed conflict with his father and relates strongly to his mother. But she, alienated in the marriage, appears to be addicted to ether sniffing.

István seems to have the strongest feeling of apprehension and guilt, shared by the town policeman and the local orthodox priest. As the film progresses viewers get a sense of what haunts these people from the past, though this is not fully explained until near the end of the film. Jewish inhabitants were taken away by the Nazi Gestapo in 1944. But prior to that István, the policeman and and the priest, were involved in a scam with the fascists to appropriate Jewishness property. The key property is a village store and pharmacy which is now run by István. The store sells perfume, an item which the station master believes may be in the visitor’s boxes; a use of props which is an example of the way the film uses signs to power the plot line.

What the inhabitants know and fear is only gradually revealed whilst the film never really gives us access to the feelings or motivations of the two Jewish men. Thus the viewer is caught up in the developing tensions in the town, whilst the characters wonder what the events signify. In the short space of time conflicts, suppressed emotions and, for some characters,, hysterical fears develop. There is illicit sex, a suicide and finally arson.

By the resolution both the inhabitants and the audiences find that their expectations have not been met, the outcome seems unexpected. But the internal conflicts of characters and town produces a dramatic resolution which is an apt punishment for the sins now exposed. With a fine formal logic the film ends as the two Jews and another character leave the station on another train, watched once more by the Soviet soldiers.

It is probably apparent that the film is influenced by classical Western. The obvious parallel would be Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) but there are also traces of High Noon (1952). This is empathised by the fine black and white cinematography by Elemér Ragályi. The flat Hungarian landscape, reminiscent at some points of the films of Miklós Jancsó, provides a suitable canvas for the varied journeys to the town. And the town itself, with its centre the village square where is sited the contentious shop, resembles a cauldron. The wedding preparations take place outside, on a hot summer day. But even with the interiors one senses the stifling atmosphere of a sultry day.

The director, Ferenc Török, is experienced but this is the first of his works I have seen. He displays an excellent control over the acting, the setting and such craft work as the editing. The script is by Ferenc Török, a writer of novels, stories and screenplays: this is an adaptation of one his own stories, ‘Homecoming’. The other contribution that struck me was the musical soundtrack by Tibor Szemző, a musician and composer with quite a few film titles to his credit. In the early stages of the film the music sounded rather slightly anachronistic but in the later stages the themes came together, suiting the revelations which the film had also withheld.

I think this film will take some effort to access at a cinema. But it will repay all such efforts.

Posted in East European Film | Tagged: | 1 Comment »